All posts by JONAHmagazine

A literary magazine about challenge and change

DORIS IMAGINES A RELATIONSHIP IN THE GROCERY STORE

DORIS IMAGINES A RELATIONSHIP IN THE GROCERY STORE

R. Nikolas Macioci

 

It is in her head to meet someone new.

In the Kroger produce department people

pause to pull plastic bags from spools.

Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale drip

with perpetual water. A lean man

in khaki cargo shorts and a green golf

shirt strolls up beside her, reaches for a

head of lettuce, smiles, says hi, and walks

away. She hangs back then follows him,

stays at the top of the cereal aisle

while he grabs Wheaties from a shelf. He

turns, sees her and smiles again. This time

she wanders past him to the other end

of the aisle and disappears around the corner.

She’s embarrassed by brazen boldness, stands

still as if examining ingredients of a potato

chip bag and asks herself what best can come

out of this situation? Her chest hurts

from being desperate, from showing too much

vulnerability. Did she veil her face

with nonchalance? Was her need visible?

He’s two lanes down from where she’s checking out.

She can see only his head over impulse items.

DORIS AT THE HOLY BIRD BAR

DORIS AT THE HOLY BIRD BAR

R. Nikolas Macioci

She’s sipping a margarita when he

sits down at the next table with his back

to her. He’s wearing gray slacks, plain

twill tweed sport coat and shirt as white

as marshmallow. Her eyes keep going

to his neck as if to study its anatomy:

muscles, ligaments, tendons, but she is

staring at visible skin and hair touching

the collar. To change focus and distract

herself she looks around at Art Deco

glass, chrome, stainless steel, shiny fabrics,

streamlined geometric forms. Everywhere

she looks leads back to his neck. The

fascination defies ordinary explanation.

She wants to touch him, but it’s more,

it’s desire magnified, sensual need at

her fingertips the object of symbolic lust.

Again she attempts to look elsewhere

at the lacquered bar, inlaid wood, mirrors,

clean lines that bring her back again to his

neck. What if he turned around? Would

she feel the same? He finishes his drink

and leaves which breaks the spell. By

herself, she still imagines stroking his

hair, feeling her hand against his neck

like a hymn to passion.

Card House

Card House

Josephine Gawtry

for 44 nights i stayed up until the sunrise: bird chorus weeping, in tito’s and tea with clover honey we hold sacred

and no amount of melatonin or cbd gummies would sedate me so: i stole Restoril from my sister’s drawer and fell blank on my bedspread. 

golden like every morning and evening. the maps started to lie, twisting the roads and Wal-marts together, got so stoned i started seeing your face behind the closet door, your wrists and ankles scarred by ropeburn

listen. the question you asked, among spring trees flowering: what made you?  i was raised in the card house, i am the forever queen of sagebrush and toothbrush. Flat white and chewed like gum.

the werewolf

the werewolf

Josephine Gawtry

it’s true that if we were in a storybook you’d be the werewolf. slouching around the kudzu on the perimeter of my yard at night, with the rabbits and groundhogs quivering in their viney coves, the deer still and wide-eyed across the old fence in the shady spruce knoll—illuminated only by distant headlights from the main road—i would look out my window and think i saw something moving out there. dismiss it as one of the mountain creatures, a fox, a black bear;

in the long farm grass we walk in springtime. ticks tickle our hairy girl legs. we find a stream with a sitting stump and a climbing tree and a bushel of wineberries. we stain our cut-up, nettle-stung hands purple and red, place the berries on each fingertip and suck them off, giggling. on our walk back we fiddle with sweetgrass and tuck eachother in our palms. i bring home wild onions and my dad puts them in the salad.

its winter and we wear jackets and go to the bakery. i choose an elephant ear and my dad asks why they are getting more expensive. looking outside at the freeway, i pant mist onto the window, spelling my name with the J backwards in fingersmudge. we go back to the house we can’t afford (the recession just happened) and my mom yells at me, in the harmless way that i am used to. i have my own room now and change my own clothes, still hesitantly. 

in summertime, i see the werewolf again. at the edge of the neighborhood, where the new houses are being built—among the concrete shells and loose nails, he stalks, blue eyes studying me. he is a mixture of tenderness, confusion, seduction. my dad calls from behind me, tossing a ball with my little brother, and i turn away, running back home. the sun will go down soon, and mom wants me back.

after my dad and i watch the fall thunderstorm on the equinox, i go to the new school with real snacks (not ice cubes) and a plastic playground painted all different colors. i am perpetually in trouble and when i am, my mom comes in sweating from the gym and grabs me by the wrist. i lie about being sick and read my chapter books so fast that i hate them for being so short. scholastic book fairs and swinging outside eat me alive, and my blood is so red and juicy i drink with them, gleefully smiling, my mouth full of baby teeth.

it’s true that if we were in a storybook you’d be the werewolf. i would walk out in the woods alone, sidestepping the boulders by the stream, my skinny child arms pushing mountain laurel branches aside and seeing you in the unfinished lot. i would run to you and feel your bristled mammal hair on my cheek. i’d bite off the honeysuckle tip and kiss your wolf mouth so you could taste the sweetness.

AVATAR OF GRIEF

AVATAR OF GRIEF

Stacey Meadows

Early in our relationship, Christoph and I took a short winter vacation to Negril, Jamaica. We found a promotional deal at a resort that was right on the beach, although still under construction. Outside our door the endless white sand beckoned, bordered by the aqua waters of the Caribbean Sea. We bounced along the beach to reggae music blaring from the outdoor bars, stopping for an occasional rum punch or Piña Colada. Aromas of meat pies mingled with the skunky scent of ganga. I fingered colorful strands of beaded seashells and batik wraps sold by vendors along the shore. A trio stopped by our beach blanket to perform a harmonious rendition of “Under the Boardwalk” on a beat-up guitar, cracked stand-up bass and percussion egg shakers, all of which looked like they had recently washed up on shore. We loved the band’s spirit and beckoned them to our blanket every day. We immersed ourselves in waves of turquoise sea, reggae music, ganga and love.

On one of our beach walks, we noticed a small shack with carved wooden figures arrayed in the storefront window. The door was open, so we wandered in. The art gallery was filled from floor to ceiling with primitive-looking wood carvings of animals and human figures bearing enigmatic expressions. With his discerning sculptor’s eye, Christoph selected three carvings from among the assemblage: a long-eared rabbit poised to leap; a Black angel in a light brown robe, with a cap of white hair and body-length wings emerging from his scapulae, and a tall, lean woman, looking forlorn, her hands tucked into the pockets of her knee-length black skirt. She had sad, dark eyes, and lips pressed together, the corners of her mouth turned down. She was a human representation of sorrow, an avatar of grief. I placed her on my dresser, unaware that she was a portent of what I would someday become.

When Jonah died, I made no attempt to deny, become angry or bargain over his death. I was raw, but not depressed. I simply accepted it, bypassing the other four predicted stages of grief. Jonah’s death left me with a new, indelible identity––I now belonged the vast human tribe of mourners. When I considered how I appeared to others, the words of Psalm 40 came to mind: “Here I am. I have come with the scroll of the book that is written upon me.” The story of loss had become the story of my life. With inconsolable sorrow permanently etched on my face, I recognized my affinity with the Jamaican carving that had stood on my dresser for so many years.

Some who had witnessed my path over the years told me that I was an inspiration. Steeped in heartbreak, I found this confusing. It seemed like such an odd choice of words. What could I inspire others to do? What encouragement could I possibly give them? I wondered what others saw as I stumbled along. Like other mourners, I hungered for role models to show me how to carry on without being crushed by overpowering loss. I never found any. I saw this as the unfortunate consequence of our culture’s refusal to accept death as an inextricable part of life. Although death was inevitable, people invariably seemed stunned by its untimely arrival. It shifted our interior and exterior landscapes in ways that we had never anticipated. We hadn’t been prepared to be so fundamentally altered. Like other mourners, I persevered with the essential tasks of daily life as I bore the staggering weight of mortality. When the time came, we all learned how to do this. We moved forward, always slightly out of step in a world where time moved along too quickly, and where others were still inexplicably concerned with trivial pursuits like accolades and possessions. All that mattered was time with those whom we loved and would someday lose.

Sometimes I felt as if I were reduced to a personification of my loss. I didn’t understand that my forthright acceptance of my child’s death had transformed me into an unwitting role model for how to bear a grief which was, by all accounts, unbearable. As others sought me out, I recognized that I had the capacity to stand with other mourners in a way that many were unwilling or unable to do. I was drawn to the wounds of loss, which I saw all around me, like stigmata. I felt called to bear witness to the suffering of those who were burdened with illness and grief. I wanted to help them find a way to heal. I recognized a new purpose in the role that had been thrust upon me. Demonstrating the strength to embrace my sorrow, I had become a broken-hearted warrior, one who could carry the grief of others.

I recently paid a shiva call to a friend who lost her husband after a valiant four-year battle with colon cancer. As soon as she saw me enter her living room, she burst out in tears. I sat down beside her on the couch and held her as she sobbed into my shoulder. When she lifted her tear-stained face to me, it was my grief that she addressed, rather than her own.

“I lost my husband, but you lost your son,” she cried.

I stroked her hair. Yes, I lost my son. My grief would forever be a benchmark against which other grief would be measured. Watching me bear my grief over the loss of my son, she knew that she would bear her own. My life had taken on an unforeseen but ineluctable purpose: I had become a living, breathing Avatar of Grief.

The Bard of Frogtown

The Bard of Frogtown

Allison Whittenberg

Like most writers I am full of shit. 

Sometimes I look at the piles and piles of half started 

prose and think, “Got a match?”

And then, I think, I’ll write a poem. Poems save paper.

So all of a sudden I am a poet.  Yet, I still have 

nothing to say.

Write, writer, write!  Goddamn it, write you fucking 

idiot.  Asshole, hole in the ass.  Craphead.  Son of a 

bitch!

Hey!

What?

Don’t get personal.

By the way, my real father, yes, the one I have never 

seen in my life, is a goddamn poet.  My mother still gets an 

occasional sestina through the mail from his as yet to be 

published chapbook entitled, The Part of Me that No One 

Knows.

Tell me about it.

Yet as a poet, I just don’t feel like I am any good.  

When I was younger I used to read my stuff with a sense of 

accomplishment.  Now I just cringe.  After work I come home 

and try to get busy on something gold and it turns on 

trite, banal, and unkempt.

Children are natural artists then they get old and 

they dry up.  I am 19 now.  And as I keep saying I have 

nothing to say.

I’ve lived with Debra for the past four years. 

When I left home it was like a funeral except no one 

had died.  I was so sad.  I cried once I hit the main drag.  

Big tears, buckets of them.

I was fifteen, when Debra and I found our own place.  

We moved from a little town to a big city. From West to 

East while still staying North.  We live in rough and 

tumble Frogtown.   In Frogtown, us people sell crafts, they 

line the drags with their handufactured baskets, pottery, 

metal works, and textiles.

She is a little bit older than me and helped me out a 

great deal.  Not just with the security deposit but she 

listen to me hash out about my childhood.  Long nights we 

spent therapeutically bottle and blunt passing till I got 

it all out, the words.  I realized now that not only do I 

hate my stepfather, but I also resent my younger brother, 

and that my mother is a continual source of frustration.

With all that memesized and catharsis size, I should 

crack open like an egg.  I should have plenty to write 

about.  I should look at a blank piece of paper and fill 

it.

I wash airplanes for a living.  

Somebody has to.

I wake up at five in the AM and go down to the airport 

and scrub the thick plastic windows with a long handled 

brush.  I have always loved planes, always dreamed of 

floating above things.  Tempting God with man made angel 

wings.

When I got home this afternoon, Debra was in broken-in 

jeans, a teal tee shirt and the familiar fawn colored 

leather jacket. She wears all of this indoors because we 

have limited heat.  Sometimes the walls get frost-covered 

Still, Debra is a diligent writer.  She does songs.  I walk 

in an she is holding the guitar pick between her teeth as 

She scribbles notes on a page.  She flicks her head back an 

winks at me.  She is a winker.  Always winking, an I think 

just who in the hell wears the pants in this relationship.

She does.

Debra loves bits of clutter: Books and papers and 

hankies that she blew her nose on.  I can’t stand it.  

Often I just want to tidy up but dare I take liberties with 

her, her, her — well, I suppose genius is as good a word 

as any.

But perhaps it’s still not the right one.

A few months ago, Debra sold one of her songs to a big 

deal Cosmopolitan company. She got 500 dollars outright. We 

had steak for a week.  That’s the problem with being a Zoe 

and dealing with the Cosmos everything you sell is sold 

outright and haven’t us Blacks have given enough away.  

They have stolen our land, our women, now our music.

The name of the song was, “A White Sleeve of 

Moonlight.”  And when Debra sang it felt Black.  It was 

textual and lilting yet bodacious as cowboys.  She used 

steel strings instead of the Cosmopolitan twinkling of a 

piano.  I heard the Cosmo version on the radio and I almost 

kept passing the dial.  It was a totally different song, 

and a corny one at that.

Oh Debra…  She was the sanctuary from my problems I 

forgot she had so many of her own.  She was like an regular 

Zoe with a family tree that tangled at the root.  I could 

never get it straight but I knew she was the half sister of 

the dead Rice Street Man.  The Rice Street Man that my 

brother, Jak, was so enamored with.  The Rice Street Man 

that smelled worse than his dog.  And as if that weren’t 

bad enough, quite a few of Debra’s short on dollars, long 

in the tooth relatives used to stay over temporarily for 

months and months.  And poor little Deb was treated like 

she was invisible.  She was forced into disappearing to 

create a room.  

She used to have to give up her bedroom and sleep on 

the couch. It was then that she learned to play that funky 

old guitar that she’d found in a dumpster.  At night while 

all the live-ins where raising Hell she’d mouth the words, 

practice fingering, playing without sound. Just another 

blond haired girl, in a country that over flowed with 

them.   

So unprettied up, you could take her for granted.  I 

have never seen her in a dress but then again she’s never 

seen me in one either.  I like to use her life in my 

writing even more than I like to use my life in my writing.

Writers are the worst type of people God ever put on 

this earth.  They note the way the dirt falls on a casket 

of a dear friend because they know they can use it later.  

It is always my writing, my writing, my writing.  The whole 

fucking world revolves around my writing.

I want to write a poem.

Lovers make the worst critics, so why do I always ask 

my Debra?

I show her my words few and she says, “I don’t know it 

sort of sticks in my throat.”

I snatches the paper back from her and tell her that 

she was supposed to fucking read it not fucking eat it. 

She laughs at me.  She laughs at me.  She throws her 

lovable head back and laughs at me.

I read my work aloud:

Salt without bread.

Thorns on a cactus.

Buddy Holly, I miss you. 

Why didn’t you go Greyhound?

I smile, puffing my chest out.  Sure, it needs some 

revision but its not all bad.  The images are clear and 

concrete.  The sound and rhythm may need some spit and 

polish.

All right, it sucks.

It bites the big wiener.

But at least it has punctuation and it does not employ 

the lowercase “i”.

I want to be Langston Hughes.

Enough of these meditations.  These scream fests on 

the mysteries of freedom, love, and hate.

I want to be remembered.

I know I am not a great writer I am only a great re 

writer.  Half the time there is nothing pithy in the first 

draft.  Half the time I don’t know where its going its all 

improved.  I don’t have a style or tone that I wish to 

effect.  I feel like screaming at myself where is my theme? 

Where is my message?  Why am writing this poem in the first 

place.

I will switch back to prose.

Inside every fiction writer there is a failed poet.

Metaphors, like my heart is dry like a big red 

balloon, are inflated but then I think all right so where 

where do I go from there?

I break for supper.  Debra fixed homemade pizza pie 

with marmot meat and shrooms as topping.  I down a few 

pizza slices and drop the crust. She’s not a bad cook, but 

I’m a little better, I measure, I do not gestamate so much.  

She has a great smile, nothing but teeth.  Big teeth and 

squinchy eyes. I enjoy this time a couple of low rent 

artists eating pizza off a white plate with blue trim.  She 

asks me about the planes and I tell her quite recently they 

had entrusted me with an unbelievable amount of keys.

“How many is too many to believe?”

“37.”

“Unbelievable,” she winks at me. “Now don’t fly off 

with the place.”

I stand and she makes a grab for my butt, smiling, “ 

Off to do more writing?”  she asked.

“That’s a good question,” I answer.

After our meal she washes the dishes and I take my 

compositions to the bedroom.  

In this next expanse of time, I had done everything to 

write.  I drew a bath, drank some murk, splashed cold water 

in my ears, danced the bop, the bump, the butterfly, the 

electric slide, the four corners, the icky shuffle, the 

mashed potato, the shingling, the worm.  I felt refreshed, 

but still no words.

So I light up and dream, I was make love to Debra only 

she has thick black hair and the wind blows and exposed her 

blond roots.  Her eyeliner ran down her cheeks like fast 

graffiti.  Those long full breasts had shrunk to teacups.

I dream of white food as symbolism. Rice pudding and 

glazed doughnuts.

SPACE.  Time and space.  Time sitting, smoking in the 

numb silence, watching the snow, as if it were doing 

something wild, like disappearing instead of the same old 

same old.  I press my face against the pane and gaze at the 

wide, white city below.  

Winter.  Heavy snowstorms at the floodgates bringing 

up a whirlpool of memories.  Snowing as marvelous as sugar 

— pink and white candy coated Christmas.

Debra, her bland blue eyes told of a fairy tale of 

cabbage and rye toast.  Toy soldiers.  Debra vouting a 

rendition of “White Christmas”.   I start singing along 

real low and soft you’d have to read my kisser to tell.  

Wilting.

The soundtrack mixes over and over.

“Are you gonna share or is a contact high all that I 

can hope for?” is the question that wakes me.  

Debra stands by the doorway, 25 years old, and wasting 

her time on me.  I’m just an adult child still so full of 

dream.  Unable to achieve any synthesis.

I roll a herb her way.

Sometimes it’s better not to force it I think as my 

ram road is in her and I’m frictioning her.  Sometimes it’s 

better to distill in the hope of further cross 

fertilization.

I do have a beginning of something:

Snow like sweat 

or smoke, like mercury,

rising above itself 

in a cloud.

The Curious Life and Time Of 

The Curious Life and Time Of 

Kenneth Kesner

Just inside our school there stand two black lions flanking the entrance.  Every one of good character is moved by their courage and their compassion.  These are the desks where Headmaster and Head Teacher had spent so many years and left just as they were when they left.  First it was Father a day after seeing the six grandkids at his birthday party, then Mother, maybe a few minutes later, so happily of a broken heart.  It’s said that, even during typhoons, none of their papers rustles.

As a young man, Father fell in love with the sea.  He travelled in a sampan to Butte, Montana, USA, where he met Mother when she was working in a salmon hatchery.  She had been vacationing during a regime change in China, and simply ran out of money to return home.  Or maybe the currency was devalued.  Either way, they sailed Pacific currents where Older Sister joined them, somewhere off the coast of Saipan.  I came along some years before landfall on the Pearl River Delta, where we stayed until we left.  

Almost every day we’d wade ashore, help with village chores then lunch then return to our home.  Late afternoons would see a number of visitors visit us, always bringing just enough food to content everyone.  In return Father would weave stories of history and magic whilst Mother would sketch something even more mysterious.      

Soon a school was to be built, so Father and Mother contributed by crafting teak furniture from our boat until there was nothing left.  We moved into the city where the villagers now lived, a few blocks from our school.  Somehow all the villagers found work inside or outside—teaching or gardening or both.

The day of her final Spring field trip was the only time I saw Older Sister at school.    It was just after her twentieth birthday.  She was in a field.  You see, we visited a field that day.  So many younger students flocked to her.  She’d begin a story and each kid would in turn add something until the story was complete.  After a number of stories, they shared lunch boxes until time to board the school buses and return home. 

Older Sister wasn’t really aware of herself until the day Max dropped in.  Max left Brooklyn after some involvement with various rackets—or syndicates, as he preferred.  He went underground—first as a subway maintenance-man then as a water-technician, both based in Manhattan.  “From rackets to ratchets,” he sometimes used to say.  Max reached Hong Kong in the mid-sixties, and immediately found a niche in the plumbing trade, servicing the many low- to mid-income housing projects that sprung up as the economy began to take flight.  Ours is one of them.  

The only absence Older Sister had during her school years happened in her Upper Sixth Form.  Max was making his rounds in the concrete boxes of our building when she stepped from the shower to discover him arriving to check the pipes.  

“EXCUSE ME.  Can’t you see I’m …?”

“Lady, either that or you have the strangest taste in clothing.”

Max eventually began plying his trade in the Kowloon financial district, where he did quite well even though some people began to confuse him with Marx.  Some traders were heard to say they were on the phone with Marx.  Ripples or great waves on the financial markets ensued.  Good old Max.  

John and his siblings were expected to study earnestly and work diligently—then everything else would fall into place just like luck.  His grandfather and his grandfather reasoned, “You learn the streets, the eddies of society, you learn a good business.”  

As a teenager, John worked as a message runner in the financial districts, moving from one securities firm to another, securely relaying nuances from one executive to another.  After college abroad, he deservedly joined the family business as a custodian to learn all the offices and the coworkers—their habits and their characters.  In time John showed promise brokering deals between brokers and so earned an office position, always making certain to welcome new employees on their first day.

Older Sister never studied much but mastered the vocals of most current Janis Joplin songs.  Instead of writing answers to her assignments, she’d draw something that incorporated something from each of the subjects.  The family agreed that Older Sister should pursue a clerical career, which she began in a business soon after graduation.  She was to live at home until she married.  

As you know, all companies require 4 documents of new graduates:  attendance records, marks and IQ test results—no exceptions.  One Thursday morning our school clerk approached Father to let him know of a firm’s request, which delighted him since Older Sister was showing initiative.  She also informed that IQ results were nowhere to be seen so Father stepped next door to ask Mother.  She shrugged and asked the same to Father, who shrugged.  Older Sister had been absent the day her Form tested so she would have to report to the Education Ministry and undergo the ordeal—this time escorted by Father and Mother.  They remained perched in their seats until the administrator returned and announced that, with scores ranging over 170, they couldn’t be accurately pinpointed.  Father and Mother refused to believe this, had her sit for another, then surrendered when the same results were announced.

“Because, if you had known, you’d have made me study even more.”

John and Older Sister met, fell in love, married and raised 3 beautiful children by early afternoon.  It’s just as well—in late afternoon near tea time, 2 raven-haired lawyers—one in red qipao, one in gold aodai—and their stenographer landed in the corporate conference room for the final meeting to complete the hostile takeover.  Older Sister was asked to take notes, which she did using brush and ink.  

After reading over their documents, she asked the kill team, “Just one question: ‘How did you?’” 

Now the qipao and aodai were on the floor, and the two phoned in resignations, agreeing to work with Lark Securities in any capacity available to them.  You can still see both pushing tea carts through the corridors of the building or fetching boxed lunches from the corner restaurant.

The corner restaurant isn’t a restaurant, though.  Mr and Mrs Lim had closed it years before.  They would usher lost patrons through the maze of dining room tables, past the kitchen, through the pantry to the lane behind, where Son and Daughter-in-Law have their own.  This way they could have tea and share the newspaper, reading together one page at a time, squabble about reported events—how one was more confused than the other—until they left to bring the grandkids back from school.  One Sunday morning one of the grandkids noticed Grandfather was reading from left to right and Grandmother from right to left.  They decided to reopen the restaurant.  

With the wedding dinner approaching, the elderly couple happily wrote John and Older Sister:

“For the wedding party, we’ll prepare a meal somewhere between feast and famine, and neither fish nor fowl, but both!  First we offer Celestial Roasted Albino Duck.  As you will see, each has only one wing so that it flies in circles to Heaven then back to Earth.  Next a seasonal favorite of the Emperors:  steamed Manchurian whitefish in freshest ice and snow.  Finally a dessert of Pearl River Pearl—to remain a secret to some until wedding day.”

John left it up to Older Sister, who left it up to the parents and grandparents, who left it up to the siblings.  

During dessert, Mother-in-Law uncovered her bowl to remove and string a pearl on a gold thread, and such was continued by everyone around the table until it reached Mother-in-Law, who knotted the thread securely and handed the necklace to John, who placed the family’s gift around Older Sister’s neck.  John and Older Sister spent their honeymoon watching the moon rise as they walked to their new home.

It’s said that the Northwest wind arrives carrying good and bad fortunes so we learn:  Wait to see how things change.  Three of Father’s and Mother’s former students dropped in on us one evening bearing delicious snacks and sad tidings.  There was talk in the Education Ministry that a certain Madame Xi was appointed by the Northern government to investigate the credentials of every Hong Kong administrator and teacher.  The Pekinese had fished around and detected that files containing Headmaster’s and Head Teacher’s diplomas and certificates were missing.

“Simple enough, dear students, we don’t have any.  We began as gardeners and remain so today.  Our salary receipts demonstrate such.  As you know, we ask each student on the final day to write just one statement—the most valuable lesson they’ve learnt that year.  We summon each one, one by one, and ask whether they will always live according to that lesson.  They nod then they pass.  Simple as that.”

Mother kept knitting, though her position moved from the sofa to a corner where ceiling and walls joined.  She stayed there knitting away, spinning a most exquisite web of revenge.  Tomorrow morning, the city would know of it, and everyone would gladly participate.

Madame Xi had the habit of stamping her tiny feet and waving her pudgy fist then almost yelping when flustered.  You could see this about to happen when she marched into Headmaster’s office and demanded to interrogate the Head Master, who wasn’t in his office.  She stormed into Head Teacher’s office, where Mother sat chatting with a gentleman of about the same age.  

“Where is this Headmaster?  I want to see him right now.”

“Simply take the stairwell to the 3rd level, walk down the East wing, then one flight down, past the library, one more flight down.”

The inquisitive visitor did so, and so arrived again at Head Teacher’s office, where the couple looked up and offered so many different sets of directions, all with the same result.  

“You haven’t seen the last of me.”

An exhausted Madame Xi returned to the boarding house to phone the Northern government.  Before trying the key, her room door was opened by a well-attired mockingbird couple holding their nestlings.

“So good of you to drop in … you see, we’re feeling a bit peckish.”  

All the landlords and merchants would, one and all, shoe Madame Xi away with a sweep of the wing—no one would lease or sell anything to her.  Sometime later, what remained of her was whisked away by the wind to Hong Kong Bay, where she was gobbled up by a vacationing salmon.  Poor old Madame Xi.

Do you remember those lions?  Hong Kong attended their funeral, as did the Mayor of Butte, the Governor of Saipan and a representative of the Northern government amongst so many others from far away.  The school day following, the new Headmaster and Head Teacher quietly announced that Dad and Mom wanted everyone to enjoy their lunches outdoors today and to forget about anything troubling anyone, whatever it might be.  A few hours after we all finished eating, a windless, light rain began to fall and moved everyone slowly indoors.  It seems Celestial Heaven hadn’t heard the announcement. 

AD CRUMENAM

AD CRUMENAM 

Mark C. Hull

EVERYONE AGREED WITHOUT a word that, because the man was well-tailored and missing an arm, he knew what he was talking about. 

“Bull sharks don’t just attack,” he announced. “They go through a process. If they’re interested in eating something they’ll give it a bump first. Sharks are some of the smartest creatures on the planet, I’ll have you know.” 

Yes, he was right, we all decided, because his right arm was conspicuously missing from his torso and his jacket had been tailored to accommodate the disability. His plaid sport coat and the dead-end sleeve hemmed into the side of it with such careful consideration implied a man whose wealth was vast and whose wisdom was well-earned through the painful ordeal of limb severance. He must’ve lost it on a scuba expedition to Roatan, perhaps, or while studying the migratory habits of White Tips in the Bahamian Sea. Doing something noble right before it was rent from him, most assuredly, although decorum prevented anyone from posing the question outright of how he lost the arm. It was obvious the man was wealthy and it’s unwise to insult the wealthy for fear of the consequences that money can levy when a wealthy man senses offense like a shark senses blood in the water. 

There were about ten of us, all strangers to one another for the most part, being ferried up to the top of the mountain in a glass gondola. We coasted high above the Rockies in the salubrious air with the plicated forest floor far below. It was a rich and rarefied environment and we were atop the world, literally and figuratively and every other way. There was a lookout restaurant at the top, and we were going to an afternoon cocktail party. 

It was because of me that the subject of sharks had come up in the first place. I’d been humming the lyrics to Mack the Knife, specifically the part about the shark with its pretty teeth. It was a random snippet, part of this scattered jukebox in my head that will play no more than ten seconds of any given song, repeat it four or five times, then shut off as abruptly as it started.  

I’d given voice to the fragment, and in no time the lecture commenced about the feeding habits of sharks from the one-armed sage who’d probably sacrificed his arm rescuing a child from being devoured after the kid had received the ominous bump from the sea predator to appraise the level of edibility.  

I wondered what would’ve happened if I’d absently sung the lyrics to Summer Wind? Would the man have started a lecture on the meteorological consequences of the prevailing westerly air currents during perihelion? Most likely, because when a person has that much money they know a lot about a lot of things because they can buy all sorts of exposure.  

Well, hell, it’s time for a confession. I’m lying, and I hate that it’s even come to this. There were ten of us, that much is true, except we weren’t on an airy gondola headed to the top of a windswept mountain. Instead we were seated on a city bus, trudging along the expressway in bumper-to-bumper traffic with nary a mountaintop in sight but plenty of dirty rooftops and angry drivers honking their horns at nothing and everything. 

It was summertime, the air was sticky with the kind of heat that radicalizes folks and the bus’s air-conditioning system was only partially working. I should be forgiven for my momentary reverie of being in the mountains and airlifted to a cocktail party as a reflexive coping mechanism. I was headed to a job I hated. 

There is a vein of truth woven through every fib, though. The man with one arm had boarded the bus and seated himself close to me, a bit too close considering the bus was mostly empty. There’s an unspoken rule of city-bus entropy which states that travelers will position themselves as far from strangers as possible and only converge as the seating area gets more crowded. It serves as a warning, like a shark bump, when a rider violates the rather Newtonian law of public transportation and prematurely plops down too close to another passenger. 

I could tell he had one arm from the way one sleeve of his shirt had been sliced off at the elbow with a pair of dull scissors and then cinched with a rubber band. His one hand had been carrying a tote bag filled with dry sponges. He tried to sell me ten of them for five dollars. 

I had been singing Mack the Knife, because no lie is without its adornments of factuality, to which the one-armed solicitor, in a rather unsolicited manner, told me, “Ten drops of blood in the water and a shark can smell it and track it from a half of a mile away.” 

I gave him a look that suggested just because I happened to be singing a song didn’t mean I’d signed up for a lecture. The man was probably full of shit anyway with his shark trivia—just a couch potato watching ocean documentaries, collecting sponges and awarding himself an honorary doctorate in marine biology. 

“Sharks are incredibly smart,” he said, which made sense for him to want me to think that, because if his arm had been severed in the murky water of some public beach by a bull shark he would want it to be a smart bull shark because there’s nothing worse than being maimed by a dumb one. There’s no dignity in losing a limb to, say, a three-toed sloth. 

“Yup, damn sloth just lazily crept out of the tree and attacked. I should’ve known he was coming for me, because it took like fifteen minutes for him to reach me from seven feet away and another three minutes for him to pluck my arm off like a grape and stuff it in his fool mouth. I tell you, that was the smartest dumb three-toed sloth I’d ever seen.” 

I wondered if I’d been absently singing the song Summer Wind would the one-armed sponge salesman have told me about the time he farted in August? I’m sure he’s an expert on that subject, too.

In every situation, be it gondola, half-broke bus or otherwise, there’s a moment of reckoning, and I suppose it’s now time for such a squaring of accounts. I wasn’t riding public transportation, and I certainly wasn’t in a glorious mountaintop sky tram, although either of those two scenarios would’ve been preferable to the one I was actually in, which was a crowded room where we sat, all ten of us, waiting to be called in for our monthly meeting with our respective parole officers.

I wouldn’t blame a single soul for not believing me at this point. I’m a liar and a cheat and a conman, made official by our modern court system. I’m on my way to rehabilitation but obviously not quite there yet and I will say that the best at the art of deception are those who can wield these fictions from some firm foundation of truth. 

The man only had one arm, sure enough, although I hadn’t noticed it at first because in this place everybody ought to mind their own business. He’d sat next to me in the last empty seat. He had a bit of a pong about him too, a creeping odor that I thought it best not to turn toward for fear that it would only get worse if my nose had been oriented in his direction. I was humming Mack the Knife, and he started humming along with me and that’s when I glanced over and saw his severed arm because it was hanging out of his tee shirt sleeve with the skin at the bottom sewn up like the butt of a sausage.

“A shark can actually smell muscular movement in its prey,” he told me. 

I gave a polite nod even though I’d be damned if I was going to believe a deranged lunatic who’d probably lost the shank of his limb in a robbery gone bad. Armed robbery? Not anymore. I was sure that the only sharks he was familiar with were the ones in the alleyways, dressed in full leather, throwing dice against the wall and talking double-fast about a real easy score, because they’re all easy until they turn out to be a setup. In this place everyone is scamming everyone else, and if they start fast-talking in some sub rosa street code it’s because they want to pull a guy in, see what they can get from him. They’re the sharks and this is the bump right before the attack, and how the hell can anything smell movement and so he was a straight lying grifter who probably wanted to recruit me because I had twice the amount of arms that he had.

If I’d been singing Summer Wind would he have told me about that time he was stealing automobiles in August with the windows rolled down doing a hundred miles an hour with the pedal to the floor? After that he would suggest we partner up for a few scores because since the doberman took his arm off he’s been unable to steal anything with a stick shift and that’s where the real money is because sports cars tend to have standard transmissions. He’d suggest we go fifty-fifty because he had the connections and I had the arms, and so how about it? 

“Bull sharks don’t just attack,” he said. “They go through a process. If they’re interested in eating something they’ll give it a bump first. Sharks are some of the smartest creatures on the planet, I’ll have you know.” 

“Lying-ass convict,” somebody muttered.

The Pandemic Under my Hot Tropical Sun

The Pandemic Under my Hot Tropical Sun 

Fariel Shafee

Note: This piece is inspired by the writer’s Covid experience in Bangladesh.  However, much artistic license has been used.  The piece should not be construed as perfect reportage or as a means to harm anyone’s reputation as the characters have been somewhat changed, and much of the views are coloured by her own experience.

Has Covid made us more human?  Do the piles of bodies stacked in morgues and the numbers proclaiming nameless deaths added from peak to peak make us crave for love and hence forgive?  We cannot come together, hug.   We sit and we think.  We get tired.  We question, shout.  Then we take pills.  Those pills inundate our heads with tailored small molecules that clog the nerves, soothe us, make us forget.  But can we?

Has nature, instead, then inserted itself inside our biological urge to survive in a vengeful sprinkle of inanimate bits that suddenly turn alive and eat us from the inner lines that separate our sovereign identities, force us into coughing out all the hatred – something akin to what we, together as a species, had perhaps been spreading with numb, dissociated pride into the keys, knobs and springs that connect us to our souls – the larger animus of existence?

Outside, I hear a female voice throwing expletives:  This epidemic will eat you all.  All of you I say.  Hey doctor! Upstairs there. Where did you hide?  Come out.  My father is dead.  You all will die.

I look out from my window.  A lady in her early thirties peeks out from a neighboring verandah.  She is well dressed and looks healthy.  They had moved in a few days back.  The houses are mostly empty these days – to-let signs hanging hopelessly from large mansions and once cluttered messes that accommodated the working class alike.  Some cannot pay.  Others preferred to move away from the city to be close to their beloved ones in case death beckoned.

This house still has the apartments to be sold lying empty – like ghostly opulence surrounded by neatly cut shrubs and fairy tale garden-lights sparkling at night.  The builders made a mansion for the mites.  The flats belonging to the owners have been let out.  Perhaps the girl that came out is related to an owner.  She tries to understand the neighborhood – the large ambulance with the flickering light and the scream – the havocs of Covid. 

This curious lady’s own flat had not been quiet from the day they had moved in either.  I had often pretended that I was not trying to locate the voices.  This part of the town was posh, having been handed out to the white-collar successes in a planned manner.  But the accent was rustic, unrestrained.  The woman was shouting. She was not a whore but a wise woman was the claim.  She also did not realize how love had waned with time.  Once upon a time a maid like the one in question would not have raised her voice.  But the beggars too do not care about the location now.  They are not starving, but Covid had brought in a dimension one simply cannot ignore.  The disease seems to empower them.   A fear crawls in to the bones of the rich.  The man from the slum screams.  She wants a new dress for her daughter who just landed in the station.  On the other hand, the pregnant maid wants her rights.  She is NOT having an abortion, I reckon.  Not so easily these days. 

Outside, the ambulance light is still flashing.  The dead body will not be allowed in.  The doctor upstairs too is silent.  He does not face up to the very serious accusations.  Perhaps it is not fear but simple reluctance.   No, he shall not come down to see the dead.  He had asked the girl to take him to the hospital, asserting that the disease was Covid.  The girl had requested him to put on a PPE and then come down, to ascertain the damning news.  He did not.  For days, the girl sat by the window and dropped money to the beggars.  With time, only more beggars came.  From early in the morning, they would begin to chant.  She would give out hefty sums – bills no other would drop from their windows.  The beggars would bring in their friends next.  The girl would rush down to hand in mosquito nets, old clothes.

 The story was finally out.  We knew of all the details over the phone.  When all patience was strained, the doctor in the fifth floor and the building association had dragged the Covid patient to the hospital.  The plasma had made him better for a day.  There was joy for a while. “He is better.”  “Thank heavens.” 

That respite was though short. Finally, he had succumbed to an age-old ailment that had remained suppressed until the new disease havocked his last defense. Was it covid of was it the heart?

I do not know how I feel for that girl.  She wishes death for others.  As she was paying the beggars most mercifully, she was also spending her evenings wishing others ill on facebook using thinly vailed synonyms, codes that did not confuse.  One would be excused to wonder if she thought of herself as a princess and the rest mentioned as the devil or as dispensable dead cows as targets for her publicly expressed brilliantly dressed up schemes.  “The royalty has common blood now,” she had exclaimed, “and that is me!”   There were also comments about how amazing her relationships were sent with love from Romania.   

Her mother did not let us know of the husband’s illness.  She had asked the neighbor to hide it.  When we had found it out from facebook we had thought of calling him up, to wish him well, but then we did not.

I felt nothing about the death, but my mother shrieked.  The news was on the TV.  It was one of many pictures displayed tagged with names and occupation.  To me it was yet another death.  To my mother, it was a man she knew, and even if not all the past was smooth, it was a character that was part of her mature existence, which now looked back with a gaping hole.

The dead body lying surrounded by one-way arrows of words chosen indiscriminately to hurt others was cold inside a bag, but the bugs we had not seen before had paid a visit to our flat two stories above-head.  The flies were large, monstrous.  They had gathered in a cluster right behind the curtains.  They sat quietly and they stared as though they had escaped from yet another world.  We got newspapers, a swatter, killed them one by one, as though we were trying to shrink down the portal that had opened up by the act of an irritable child, now to suck us all back in.

I was apathetic to the words that wished to drag down the world with one dead man.  I let the days roll by as I sat in my room and passed MOOCS.  I read about maggots in dead bodies in my forensic class, and from time to time I went to that filthy mouthed girl’s facebook page.   I did not know whether it was to forget her pain, but she was listening to film music now.  She had posted a picture of her father’s burial.  Now she was attacking the journalist who should have published a better photo (and I agree).  I felt sorry that day, but I did not ring, or even leave a note. I kept the sorrow to myself and I went back to my MOOC.

Then one day she posted a confession: that she had been blackmailed into facebook, to victimize others in hope of gaining.  Afterwards, she was back, ridding the world of the devils.  None was spared.  We were all to perish with the world perhaps.  Did she wish it all for herself?  Would the beggars stay?

I had felt sadder for the doctor who owned a flat upstairs.  We had a tiff.  “He did not come to me first,” he had said when our father had a stroke and withered slowly.  They had issues.  But I remembered him in our home. My mother was seated on the sofa and he was comforting: “You will get well soon, madam.  Not much to be worried of.”  In reality, my mother had stage four cancer.  She did not know the gravity of her symptoms.  Neither did he.  She had trouble walking.  To us all, it was an accidental spinal compression, and he had checked the nerves meticulously.

I was angry about my father’s fate.  But I did not expect him gone.  “Sorry we could not save doctor,” a junior apprentice one day posted on facebook.  I knew the girl. I felt a sudden surge of pain – it was sharp and unkind.  The disease was cruel and ungrateful.  The man was overseeing an ICU.  

“He’s dead?”  I had commented on facebook, shocked.

“Yes, we could not save him.  We tried.”

I thought of all the patients who had Covid but hid their ailments, walked up to the doctors and pushed the disease into their purported saviors.

Inhuman!  But then the doctors too were scared.  Many of them.  The hospitals would turn away the sick.  

“Who will treat you if we are dead?  Tell me?  We want a certificate.  Covid free,” they would claim.  More than one of those patients died – getting carried from hospital to hospital, waiting for that piece of paper that marked them as safe.

Those were the early days of the disease – the uncertain bubbles filled with fear and panic – dead bodies popping up once or twice in the middle of the street – abandoned by those who feared for their own lives.  Once we heard of a son deserting his mother.  People chided in unison.  Then they themselves left their homes for their livelihood, tucking the masks in their pockets.

The sea of people in the streets, on the public transports and running stores had first tiptoed outside their lockdown zone using alternate routes – as though Kings of forgotten eras had evaded the enemy attack through a secret passage.  Now there was no lockdown, and they all had masks to show, though not in direct use.

Most of these people would not die.  A newspaper claimed that seventy percent of the people in the slums had already had Covid.  Their lack of apathy for the aggressive death comes from their own resilience.  Their poverty had made a truce with germs and dusts.  The body knew those well.  So those people buzzled in the dust and went to work.  The protected bourgeois peeking out from time to time, asking for help from the otherwise unfortunate lot got ambushed by the bugs.  Those floated out in the breath – perhaps a curse to the world for the fate of long-time neglect.

We did not understand why bodies were stacked in the streets of South America, but the laborers of Bangladesh were so regally damning to the tiny strands that the mighty feared the most.   But here they were, peddling goods in the streets, leaving the quickly made Covid unit empty.  The rich man who had donated to make that very large tent for the ones who would need it in sickness was dead though – one of the first ones to die of the disease.

We do not understand this disease – its rage and its inclinations — where it finds a safe home – who it wishes to tear up into bites.  Some take a chance and die.  Some walk out apathetically and leave.  Some others leave with maladies stuck to their guts – for days. even when the bug has left.

We fear most what we do not comprehend – the ones that kill us furtively, chaotically and indiscriminately.  

I have holed myself up inside my room.  There are frail ones I need to care for. For a long time, I watched streaming reels and then drew, and I made up characters to let my anger out for all the lemons life has presented to me.  Now I feel no emotion.  I just sit – frustrated, bored – waiting for something I cannot define.  The wait is long and tiresome – at times giving rise to feelings that wish to embrace nihilism.  I read about the brain – see pictures about the little flashes – the fears brought in by images in the deepest part of our inner selves.  

The virus has taken away my anger against others.  Perhaps we have indeed become the same.  Perhaps I have just given up.

As I sit, I hear that little girl shout.  She wishes the whole world dead.  Yet, a few days later, when I hear about the dead doctor who was alive and well, breathing inside our home a year ago, I wish some one would pray, and I hope someone would remember.

No one in our apartment complex says much.  They are afraid.  Perhaps it is okay only to whisper the name of covid.

One day, though, our locked down gate is open.  A man walks into the house to fix the pipes.  A mask though is in place.  The next day, someone re-orders his newspaper.  They all would like they lives back – whether they live or die.  

I still sit and wait.  I cannot take the risk for the sake of others I love.  In a small bubble of confinement, perhaps we can talk – say all the things we never did, reconcile – find how precious life had been all the years we let roll recklessly.THIS PHOTOGRAPH IS TAKEN BY GANESH DHAMODKAR. ATTRIBUTE AS GANESH DHAMODKAR/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS..

Nelson Harris

Nelson Harris

by

Connie Bedgood

I was born in 1936 in Fort Worth and I lived with Aunt Jessie and Uncle Nelson Harris back then, but my memories are of 1941 when I was living with them once more.  They had no children and he owned five-night clubs in Fort Worth, Texas.  I remember setting at one bar and eating Jell-O during the day when my stomach was upset.  There were juke boxes at the booths, and you could tell the lady which song you wanted her to play after you put the nickel in.  We were in Fort Worth awaiting the birth of my brother who was named Robert Nelson Blim.

The next thing I remember was being led into a large building with ladies with long black and white out fits surrounding them.  Their head pieces looked as like if the wind caught them exactly right…they would take off and fly.

Seated at long table were kids under the age of five eating scrambled egg sandwiches.  I ate my first one that day.  All the other older kids were in school.

A few days later we kids of school age were driven there.  I became fast friends with Sam from Georgia.  After all, he had every color of Crayon in the world—including gold.  We spent a lot of time coloring which was alright with me.

Then nap time was upon us.  We all had our long piece of brown paper which we laid on…upon the hard floor.  I still today, do not like brown paper bags.

At lunch on Fridays we ate pinto bean sandwiches on brown bread. I liked and missed them later when I moved back to Los Angeles.  When rain hit the windowpanes in the attic, up the stairs we ran falling all over each other.  The attic was huge and looked as if haunted but could not be as it was a Catholic boarding place.  I figured that out at the age of 5.  We could run and scream and play which did not bother the ladies in the black and white outfits.

Every week or two one of the ladies in the black and white outfits stood at the foot

of the stairs as we came down, they presented us with a large spoonful of the nastiest tasting liquid stuff in the world called cod liver oil.  After a few times of this, I found something else to do upstairs till the lady with the tablespoon was gone.

In good weather it was out into the back yard playing under the clothesline.  Sometimes we played Hide and Seek or Tag. As we were running everywhere it is no surprise I fell and cut my left wrist on a piece of glass.  I still have the scar.  I am sure Uncle Nelson paid for my time at the boarding school, along with Bobby’s birth and mine.

Then my dad, who lived in Tyler, had the summer months with me.  He was a postman and his mother, whom I called Other Mama, was at home taking care of me.   She 

was washing dishes in the kitchen looking out the window watching me in the back yard playing with A. W. Brady whose parents were divorced also.

He said, “Say Dam Connie! Say Dam, Dam!”  Before I could say anything, Other Mama was out the back door yelling at A.W. to go home till he could behave himself.  Evidently, A. W. never grew up to behave, he was racing on brick streets in Tyler down South Broadway and was killed in his 1954 coup Ford.

During the time we lived on East Edwards Street where A. W. taught me to cuss, I do have a memory of Uncle Nelson coming up the long set of concrete steps with his 38 caliber pistol in his shoulder holster and my grandfather, P. O. Bedgood setting in a chair at the screened-in widow of the front porch with a rifle in his lap.  No one shot anyone, that time.

Eventually daddy requested a change of venue for his custody case for me to live with him and Other Mama.  The change of venue was to Grayson County from Smith County.  I was living in Pottsboro with my mother’s mother Laura Lindsey during the end of World War II.  The paperwork shows Aunt Jessie and Uncle Nelson put up the money for mother’s lawyer.  A letter written in 1959 from Aunt Jessie stated that mother gave me up to daddy rather than cause any more bad information becoming public about Uncle Nelson.

Uncle Nelson was always kind with a great laugh and came to Pottsboro several times during the four years I lived there bringing real toilet paper instead of using the Sears Catalogue sheets like we did.  One of these visits I accidently stepped on Aunt Jessie’s foot and she screamed and carried on as if she were bleeding.  I felt bad about it for years.  Perhaps

if I known what kind of life, she lived in Fort Worth, I would have been more understanding, but then I was a kid of only nine at that time.

Recently I asked the library in Fort Worth to look up newspaper articles on Uncle Nelson and they sent me the following information.

He started his life of crime as a deliveryman for the Green Dragon narcotics syndicate and became a bouncer for some joints on the Jacksboro Highway after serving two years in the federal prison.  He also ran a prostitution racket out of his own house.   Nelson Harris was considered one of Fort Worth’s toughest and most versatile criminals.  After reading this and more, I had to take a few days to absorb this about the man I knew.

******

I did go visit Nanny in Pottsboro several times after moving to Tyler.  I never saw Uncle Nelson again.  Aunt Jessie was in the V.A. hospital after she was discharged from the Women’s’ Air Forces.  She had been in a big storm on the ocean while taking care of the wounded from battles overseas.  She joined the military to get away from the hounding of the FBI.    I wrote her all about being fourteen and fifteen and dating.  She wrote me back and enjoyed my roller skating and boyfriend stories.  She married and divorced many times…society was different back then.  

Then in November of 1950 while dating my first boyfriend in a car…right before Thanksgiving daddy showed me an article from the newspaper.  For the first time in my life I wanted to be all alone…trying to understand the news.  Uncle Nelson opened his car door, 

climbed in and was seated with his young wife, who was pregnant.  He started the car and dynamite blew the top off the car. They were both dead.  The explosion was audible for blocks in all directions. The two-door car was parked beside the Harris’ duplex apartment.   I cried a lot. 

I called Aunt Chloe and she, of course, already knew it and said Aunt Jessie had called her.  We were all sad.  Aunt Jessie was in the V.A. hospital longer because of the news.

Research revealed a lot about Uncle Nelson.  He was a gangster not the machine gun type but broke the law several times.  He squealed and so received two years in Leavenworth Prison which is one of the worst ones.  Even after all of this married to the young wife, he was still committing crimes.

No one ever stood trial for the three murders but it did end the rein of the Jacksboro Highway gambling, prostitution, drugs and crime with a lot of jail time and bodies found in secluded places of some of the past criminals.

My question is, “Did the three in the car get justice?”  That baby was not guilty.  Since I believe we reap what we sow…whoever did it…more than likely was blown up also.

Photos available of Jessie and Nelson

STEW

STEW

by

Vivian Lawry

 

Alta set the Dutch oven on the stove and smeared the bottom with bacon fat. The cast iron shone smooth as black satin. When the fat shimmered, she scraped in the chopped onion and gave it one quick stir. The smell of onion and bacon bloomed.

Judith poked her head in at the screen door. “Hey, sis. Something sure smells good.”

“C’mon in. I’m making stew for dinner.” Judith slid onto the bench behind the old oak table and plucked at a little triangular tear in the oilcloth covering the big rectangle. Alta glanced at her. “What’s wrong?”

“I’m feeling like the old woman who lived in a shoe.”

Alta turned to the chuck roast, bloody and marbled white with fat. “What do you mean?”

“You know. Granny always said, ‘There was an old woman who lived in a shoe. She had so many children, she didn’t know what to do. If she’d known what to do, she wouldn’t have had so many children.’”

Alta chuckled. “You aren’t even married so you don’t need to worry about that.” She cut a look at Judith. “Or do you?”

Pink flooded Judith’s face from collar to hairline, nearly hiding her freckles. “Of course not! I’m not Rosie! It’s just… Well, Bill asked me to marry him. But I just don’t know. I don’t want to be like Ma. I don’t want thirteen children—nor six, neither!”

While they talked, Alta blotted both sides of the beef, tossing the bloody towel into the wash basket in the corner. “You should talk to Lena or Bessie. They’ve only got one each, so they must know what’s what.”

“But their sons are older than I am! That would be like talking to Ma—and what’s the use of that? If she knows anything about stopping babies from coming, she must not think it’s the right thing to do or there wouldn’t be so many of us!” She tossed her strawberry-blond curls, her eyes pleading. “I was hoping you’d tell me.”

A pained look flashed across Alta’s face. She picked up the slab of beef, rubbed salt and pepper into both sides, and scraped the wilted onions to the edges of the pot. She sighed. “I’ll tell you what I know—what I’ve heard and such.”

“Oh, yes, please!”

Alta dropped the roast into the Dutch oven, jerking her hand back from the popping oil. “Surely you know about rubbers?”

“Of course! Everyone knows about those.”

“Well?”

Judith blushed again. “I heard Bill joking with some of his poker buddies. One said something about sex wearing a condom feeling like wearing galoshes, and Bill said one good thing about getting married was not having to wear rubbers anymore.”

“Oh. Hmmm. And you say you and Bill haven’t…?” 

Judith whipped her head back and forth so fast her curls flew out. “I told him right off that we would never go all the way unless we were married!”

When the first side of the beef had seared, Alta turned the roast with a long fork. At the end of the stainless steel handle, tapered scarlet Bakelite always made Alta think of a hot pepper. She favored this cooking fork, partly because Granny had given it to her. “Does he want kids right away?”

“We haven’t talked about that. But I know I don’t!”

Alta poured iced tea for both of them. “Well, if he won’t wear rubbers, I guess it’s up to you.”

“Why do you think I’m here! What can I do?”

The second side had seared. The beefy smell was heavy in the kitchen. Alta moved the pot to a cooler burner and dumped in a quart of canned tomatoes. The sizzling and bubbling quickly subsided to a simmer. The lid was too heavy for steam to escape, so a rich broth was guaranteed.

“Some of our cousins down in the hills talk about it a lot. Mostly they seem to try to keep their husbands’—or whoever’s—seed from getting through.” While the roast simmered, Alta collected the vegetables—dirt-brown potatoes, purple-and-white turnips, and sunset-orange carrots. “I don’t know how well any of these things work. One said to tie a square of sponge with string, soak it in honey or vinegar, and push it up against the opening to the womb.”

Judith looked aghast. “How?”

“With your finger, of course.”

“Ugh! Put my finger up there?”

Alta grinned. “Hon, there’ll be bigger things than a finger up there!”

“But… But… Won’t it get lost?” Judith’s voice was a high-pitched squeak.

“It can’t. The opening to your womb is tiny. And you have the string there to pull the sponge out after.” Alta started scrubbing the potatoes—so young they didn’t have eyes to bother with—using the toothbrush she kept for the purpose. “Personally I think that’s better than another thing they’ve used: tobacco shreds mixed with honey and cotton lint—just pushed up in there.” She glanced at Judith. “Up against that nob that feels like the tip of your nose.” She turned back to the potatoes. “I’ve heard of lots of things like that—like a paste of juniper berries smeared on your privates, outside and in. Cousin Ima said she’s used a lemon half with all the juice squeezed out, pushed up there like a cap—but she can’t always get lemons. Irma said she cut the fingertip off a rubber glove, but it was devilish hard to get in place.”

Alta dropped the chunked-up potatoes into a bowl of water to keep them from browning and to make potato water for the next bread-baking. 

Green tinged Judith’s face. Alta said, “You could find a Catholic co-worker and ask about the rhythm method—the calendar method they sometimes call it. One thing I can tell you is that when you notice a creamy discharge in your panties, that’s when you’re likely to get pregnant. My doctor told me having sex as long as it looks like egg white is likely to get a baby. If that isn’t what you want, wait till four days after it disappears.” 

The carrots and turnips were scrubbed and chunked, dumped into another bowl. Alta had nothing pressing while the beef simmered, so she sat across from Judith. “Listen, hon. Great-Granny talked about stoneseed root—said the Lakota swore by it—but if that’s around here, I wouldn’t know what to look for or where.”

Judith’s shoulders drooped and Alta patted her hand. “But there are things right in the kitchen you could try. I’m taking this from what my doctor told me not to do if I didn’t want to miscarry next time.” She looked aside. “You know Elwood and I lost another baby, don’t you?”

Judith leaned across the checked oilcloth and squeezed Alta’s hand. “Oh, sis, I didn’t think…I mean, I thought you wanted to stop after the two girls and would know what I should do. I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault.” Alta’s small smile quivered. “We’d just really like to have a boy.” Tears filled Alta’s eyes and she wiped them away with her apron.

“Oh, sis, what kind of person am I, making you talk about this when you want another one so bad!”

Alta shrugged one shoulder. “Don’t fret about it. It’s not like one has anything to do with the other. Now, according to Dr. Hodson, too much of any of these can cause you to lose a baby—and some will keep you from getting one in the first place: lots of aspirin, raw cinnamon, and laxatives.” 

Alta rose, checked on the stew, reduced the heat, and wiped her eyes again before she sat back down. “I found an old herbal in that box of mixed goods I bought at the auction awhile back. The first section is growing and storing herbs. The second is recipes. And the third section talks about medicinal uses. According to the herbal, eating apricot kernels or roots of Queen Anne’s lace should trigger a miscarriage too. Or drink teas made of ginger root, rue, angelica, jack-in-the-pulpit root, pennyroyal, parsley, chamomile, or nutmeg.” She squeezed Judith’s hand again. “Ask around. Some women who’ve used them might not be willing to talk about it but some will. I think some of the teas need to be taken more often than others, some every day to build the effect.”

“I’ll never remember all that!” Judith wailed.

“Hon, you really need to talk with Bill about whether to have children, how many, and when.”

“Yeah, I’m sure you’re right.” Judith jumped up, face blazing scarlet. “Thanks, sis. I…I have a lot to think about.” The screen door banged behind Judith. 

Her failure to give her husband the son he wanted—a son to carry on the family name—weighed on Alta’s heart like a river rock. She retrieved the herbal and sat down to read, hoping she might find something she’d missed before.

When the roast was nearly fall-apart tender, Alta added the drained vegetables to the pot. By the time the vegetables were cooked but not mushy, the biscuits would be done. 

Alta dabbed her tears with the sleeve of her dress. She wished she had a recipe for Judith—and for herself.

MY TWO NOVEMBERS

 

 

 

MY TWO NOVEMBERS

 Abigail Warren

 

Not this freight train

barreling down from Canada

an unwanted guest

leaving mornings smoky

with a drunken sun

too tired to push

his belligerent fires

to that quivering hemlock,

standing erect as a boy

in 3rd grade who’s

pinched a girl

and is waiting outside the principal’s office

for punishment.

Not you, November.

The other one.

Where the pokeweed is still alive

with purple orbs hanging heavy,

trees still crimson

oaks, cinnamon.

No smell of fossil fuels,

but leaves gathered

in mounds where children

dive recklessly

in great leaps crackling

until some father gathers them,

and they blaze under a

November moon;

look close, the hydrangeas,

their fading heads droop 

like those sullen children, 

called in after evening’s play.

But let the children stay

let them gather leaves,

let them believe all this

will not end

THAT BEACH, AGAIN

That Beach, Again

Michael J. Shepley

 

      I thought 

  to put a piece

    of the sun in

a standard business 

    envelope and

  then stamp that

        for you

  loved the sand

    and seasighed

        song under gulling wing     

        as your skin

    drank salty day

to firm the borders

between bold bronze 

           and more shy

porpoise belly bare

  a little later there

with moonlight smile

  you know exactly 

      what I mean

     or once meant

         to you too

        and I wish

  I had and sent it

  if in mere meta4

          like this here poem

        but it’s been

   -what? now way more

               than 30 years

                             since I have

                  any new address for

           it

 

IKEA

IKEA

DS Maolalai

on the floor of the bedroom

searching the carpet for screws

while the mattress stands over me

like the approach           

of a two-storey

truck. I slug a beer

and put it down somewhere

out of the way

on the carpet, (I know

before I’m done

I’ll knock it over). pick up a strut.

I work steadily;

place wood against

wood and screws

in holes. forget

where I left

the allan wrench. the screwdriver.

dust spews up

like spores out of mushrooms

or a movie

about discovering old cities – digging in, I find

forgotten books, dirty plates,

t-shirts and condom wrappers. outside

a broken box-spring

sits in the garden

and soaks – it will be there

at least a year

once we get used to it. the carpet

under the bed

thirty years fresher. I work

in spilled beer

and old receipts, hoping

to get things done

before chrys comes in

and decides we should change that

too.

Photo credit: Iris Yue, Unsplash

TALL GLASSES

Tall glasses

DS Maolalai

pouring our gin

onto icecubes

and limes.

enjoying              

the crackle

and crunch.

and summer

is trapped

by the walls

of our balcony;

the ice in a tall

glass of gin.

we lean back in tandem,

stretching like poolside

recliners. below us

the traffic is steady; locked

like a lime

in our ice. we stir

our tall glasses

with takeaway

chopsticks,

shifting the garnish

around.

LETTERS FROM HOME

LETTERS FROM HOME

Anna Kapungu

 

In the deserted days

Where the sun is my champion

And the blood thirsts for water

I tell the rays what I miss the most

Hear my breathing

Sweat drip down my back

My hands cracked  from the labour

Labour  without  gains

Split the grounds to pass the hours

Read the roads of my palms 

Roads that lead me back home

Then I receive your letters

Your words are like rain in the summer

Comfort my blackened heart

Feel the elevation of my spirit

My people,the force of humanity

I cannot pray to surrender my heaviness

I cannot cry to release my sentence

THE TRACTOR AND THE FARMER’S WIFE

John Grey

 

It’s one thing to be private.

It’s quite another to be so obsolete

that your tires are flat

your flywheel’s shot

your gas tank’s empty, rusty.

and you’re abandoned

hi the far end of the paddock,

mid-winter,

smothered in a foot of snow.

It’s one thing to think that the ideal

is to be done with work.

cooling off,

when that work is what’s sustained you.

and you’re not cooling off,

you’re freezing up.

And sure, it’s one thing

to materialize out of melting,

with spring upon you,

the unplowed field ahead of you,

when there’s a newer model in the showroom.

and the bank is making loans

to every farmer in the county.

And it’s one thing to be a tractor.

But such a misery to be you.

THE FORECAST

THE FORECAST

Madelyn E. Camrud 

 

Temperatures below zero,

windows frosted over; 

rabbits chew shrubs 

to the nub; the willow 

curled crooked over the coulee 

like before—as if we 

hadn’t passed that day; 

as if nothing has happened; 

it bends ever so slightly above water like before—

                                         does nothing in nature know? 

How many buds cut—lost count; 

the sweet smell of narcissus—

ominous fills my house.

The days lead to Christmas: 

my garden grows grief in the cold.

           

          :/who knows what evil takes over a mind?            

^^^^^^

The willow remains unchanged—

ice on the coulee

thickens—

my skin 

grows thin.

 

Is there no measure 

to this sadness? 

 

I strain to see 

past the glass; 

something is falling—

neither rain nor snow.

 

                         

What country is this?            

SEVENTEEN

SEVENTEEN

Jocelyn Cooper

 

My perky ponytail bobs

As I strut with my friends

New Hampshire

The White mountains

A hot August night

The Maplewood Resort

Harry Belafonte performs inside

He sings his haunting melodies

I hear Scarlet Ribbons for the first time

Poor teenagers like me are at the windows

Looking in longingly

He acknowledges the outsiders in a song

We’re young!

We’re thrilled!

THE COSMOS

Madelyn E. Camrud

 

That summer of good rains, 

he scattered seed for her—the woman 

he loved; she his life, disease he wasn’t ready for; 

nor was she, young by standards today; 

brilliant; beautiful; loved before

she left; loved still and ever 

after because that’s how it is with flowers, 

tall and slender, growing below 

a mountain where breezes fall; where 

bears romped, rolled on seeds—

the hundreds of pounds he planted; 

stalks grown tall after good rains as if the love 

would not go away; as if all and every 

love is a story; yet never one so rare 

as The Cosmos; none so delicate, and true.

IT HAD THAT SWING

Ed Ahern

 

My mother spent evenings listening to records.

Years of evenings.

78’s and 33’s, and only big band swing.

All named after the band leader.

The bands are largely forgotten now,

but there were Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey,

Woody Herman and Harry James,

Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller.

My mother, widowed and jobless,

Played the music of her courtship,

Of a yet unburdened future,

At least twice a week.

I never liked the music,

But had nowhere else to go,

And absorbed it despite myself,

Melodies lingering decades later.

In cleaning out her house

I couldn’t throw away the records

And suitcased them back home.

Never played, almost forgotten.

They’re serious collectibles now,

Worthwhile selling off,

But I can’t discard the future

She almost had.

LIONS IN THE GARDEN

LIONS IN THE GARDEN

Molly Gillcrist

Erna is sitting in her wheelchair on the sunporch of Homestead Manor while Charmaine braids her hair.

“‘You see, Erna,’ he told me as he stepped back from the crate, ‘it’s not everyone has lions in his garden.’ ‘His garden?’ I said to myself. I’m telling you, Charmaine, from the minute he threw the excelsior off those snarling heads, Mason fought me at every turn. I mean, for a long time he’d been like a zombie at home. Mind at the office, I thought. Ouch, Charmaine! I did what I pleased, and he never noticed unless I pointed out something like the hyacinths under the daphne. But after those lions were out of their box, Mason came to. Where’d I get this, he’d want to know. Why’d I put something here or take it from there? My peace. What? Place? No, Charmaine. Today I say my garden was my peace.

“Two acres on a hill topped with oaks, a step across the city line. Grapevines curling near the bittersweet. May apples blossoming in the spring. And birds. Yes. In bare winter I’d see a nest in every tree. In summer I’d sometimes slip outside when it was still dark and wait at the corner of the porch. I’ve never heard anything so hushed—expectant—you know. The breeze would rise up a little, then fall back with the hint of light. I’d wait till I could see my right hand clearly, then lift it, just a bit, like this. The air would fill with song. I felt like Eve.

“When Orrie was still in high school, I could count on Mason arriving at six. But after Orrie left for the East and those lions were delivered, he started coming at five, at four. He even came at noon a few times, but I wouldn’t look up at him when he did that. He was howling my territory. That’s what I said, Charmaine. Prowling.

“And then he attacked. I can still hear the snarl of the backhoe coming up the drive. Mason ran it straight down the old roadbed Orrie helped me line with walls of rock from the quarry. We heaved those limestone blocks and set in ivy above them while telling stories about the folks who’d rumbled by in their covered wagons, pulling their cows behind. By our time it was grown over, of course, but you could still see the wheel ruts. Those should be saved, you know. Well, because—because they’re evidence, Charmaine. And there was Mason, hoeing up the roadbed, laying pipe to the lions on the bank of the deep hole he’d torn through the violets by the end of the wall. Now, I tell you, that was something I couldn’t forgive. How’d he know about such a thing as a backhoe? He spent all his time with numbers down at the bank.

“You’re right, it was Mason’s land too. But he’d never claimed it. I made it mine. I’d wanted that hilltop since I first noticed it way off in the distance from my father’s office when I was sixteen. From that high and far, it looked like the Promised Land, green and glowing at the end of day. I was careful not to talk about it much. Let it grow on Mason. One day he came home with the deed. I nearly loved him then. I’d thought he was the one who’d get it for me.

“Mason was ten years older, you see. Yes, ten. Not twelve, Charmaine. I should know. Our fathers worked together and he’d always been around, staring at me. Wary. I played the flirt with others and ignored him. He was such a serious person—lean and tight, already a manager. The more I ignored, the more he watched. To be honest, Charmaine, I liked his staring, yet until I saw that hill and knew it was the place for me, I didn’t think of him as a lifetime prospect. But then it came to me that if the hill was to be mine, Mason could help me get it.

“He liked my hair, Charmaine. Auburn it was then. So I was careful, when he was around, to sit where the light would catch it and then look up with a smile when I felt his eyes on me. Little by little I drew him in. We married when I was twenty. I never told anyone what I thought. Yes, maybe you. But I never told anyone else—not even my sister, Hortense. You remember. She stopped by a month ago. The twenty-third? All right, closer to the thirtieth. Anyway, I really did think, now he has what he’s wanted, and soon he’ll give me my heart’s desire, and that will be that.

“But there are many hours, Charmaine. He was always wanting me to listen. ‘Just hear that!’ he’d exclaim when he played music, or ‘Isn’t that interesting? Don’t you agree?’ he’d look over after he’d read me something he’d found in a book. Always wrenching me out of my own thoughts, forcing me to pay attention to his. I wanted to be out where it was quiet, and when he came outside with me, he drove me wild with fussy questions. ‘Why’d you put the lilies here—and facing this way and just so deep and cover them exactly this way?’ he’d want to know. And ask me the same questions later and say I’d said something else before. I couldn’t explain lilies to him, but I knew what they liked.

“How civilly we yanked and prodded each other nearly raw! And neither would yield. Even if Orrie hadn’t been born, I don’t think we’d have ended it. Too obstinate. And then there was Orrie. He was such a soothing child. The years he was home, sometimes we were almost—a family.

“At least until Orrie left, the land didn’t matter to Mason. I ask you, how can land not matter? Remember that poem? You know—where we go to meet all the kings and queens who ever lived? They’re all in the earth, you see. And we’ll be with them. Everyone who ever lived. I like that. Mason hadn’t thought that way at all. He lived on the surface. He stayed with his numbers and books and music like a bird on a wire, unaware of the messages hurtling through the curl of his feet.

“Live and let live, you say. Before I lived with my alternative, I thought that too, Charmaine.

“Orrie knew how to join in. He’d watch what Mason or I was doing, see a part of it he could do, and just step in, the way a jumper watches the twirl of the rope and slips in to the center. I could do that with him too. See a space and step in. Mason never could. It was force with him. You don’t understand what? Why we didn’t talk about it?

“Don’t talk to me about talking, Charmaine. There’s too much of that now. Mrs. Hartley even tells me when she moves her bowels. She does too, and you know it, Charmaine. As if she has to tell me! How could I not know? She looks so satisfied when she hobbles out after. Transfixed on her bowels. What a thing to come to! That’s not funny, Charmaine. Your turn will come.

“Where was I? Yes. You think I should have said what I felt. Well, Mason didn’t say what he’d been doing—studying! After the lions were uncrated, he pulled out a big, yellow envelope and slapped it down in front of me on the table. ‘I’ve been researching,’ he said, ‘and making plans.’

“The next day a truck delivered a load of gravel for the bottom of the hole he’d dug. Before noon the pipe was connected, and by evening enough water had gushed out the lions’ mouths to make a dark pool. Well, Charmaine, it looked dark to me. When it was full, Mason turned down the valve so the water dribbled—day and night it drooled out of the mouths of those lions. Wherever I was in the garden, I could hear the noise it made. Even in the house I was pursued. I’m telling you, Charmaine, that water was not a comfortable sound.

“Then Mason decided to plant an apple orchard, starting at the top of the hill and marching south. I told him that would mean cutting down most of the oaks, and he said, ‘Yes, Erna, it will.’ I told him to wait, that it would drive the birds away, that orchards were best put on a north slope, that summer was not a time for planting trees. But he tapped his plans and said, ‘That’s what I’m going to do, Erna, starting tomorrow.’

“In the morning two workmen knocked on the door, and for the three weeks of Mason’s vacation, there was nothing but noise—the growl of the power saws, the crashing tear when the oaks fell, and the backhoe rending the hill. The birds disappeared. I couldn’t look. I tied a thick scarf over my ears, but I could still hear the noise.

“Mason was true to his plans. By the end of his vacation, the orchard was planted. But I had a scheme of my own. I waited till fall and while he was working at the bank, I picked up a basket, stuck a trowel in my pocket, and went out to gather acorns. It took time—arthritis was already stiffening my joints—but I filled that basket full and dragged it out to the orchard. Around every sapling and in between, I dug small holes, put an acorn in each, and covered them very neatly. You couldn’t tell where they were or where I’d been either because I smoothed over my footprints when I backed up the hill—every row. The next spring I went out and pulled weeds, only those that might smother the oaks. They’d get a good start before Mason could tell they weren’t weeds.

“I knew those fruit trees would wither, Charmaine. They’d be fooled by the sun shining so friendly in January’s false spring and burst into flower. In a day or maybe less, a storm would come to wrench away their bloom, and during summer dry spells they’d use all their resources just to endure. They couldn’t grow in that location. Mason hadn’t learned anything about orchards from his study; he’d just decided to settle our account.

“You want to know about ruin, Charmaine? Listen to me. With no leaf filter to cool them, my daphne and vines and trillium—everything—blanched from the sun. They lost their vigor and faded away. Several birds did return. Out of habit, I suppose.

“Mason staked and fertilized and watered his trees, but most were dead in two years’ time, and he was gone in another. He left for the bank one morning, and they told me he slumped at his desk. He had never apologized. You’re right, Charmaine. Neither had I. He did leave me some money in trust, enough to live in an apartment but not enough to stay on the hill. And I didn’t want to anymore. It was no good offering it to Orrie either. He wasn’t coming back.

“Before I left, I planned to take a hammer and smash the lions, but then I decided to leave them be. I would turn off the water and let nature take its course with them. When the oaks grew tall to shade the hill again, the ivy would return. It has a way of coming back, you know. It wouldn’t be many years before the lions were covered, and the place would be the way it was before I came.

“Yes, I’ll be all right, Charmaine. But don’t wheel me back just yet. If you don’t mind, I’ll stay here on the porch for a while.” 

Photo: public domain, provenance unknown

HOW TO ARRIVE IN VENICE WITH YOUR MOTHER

How to Arrive in Venice with Your Mother

Dan Morey

 

The train from Florence to Venice takes a couple hours, so we made sure to book window seats facing each other. This way Mother could look at me, and I could look at Mother, instead of some belching German pensioner.

We found our car and went directly to our seats, which were occupied by two Russian women with dyed yellow hair. They greeted us in English, but after we showed them our tickets their language skills conveniently deteriorated.

“Those are our seats,” I said.

They smiled innocently.

“Our seats,” I repeated, pointing in the vicinity of their ample buttocks.

They nodded and withdrew some magazines from their bags. An Italian passenger popped up beside me. He spoke English, and was all too willing to help. After looking our tickets over, he scrutinized the Russian ladies.

“I have a solution,” he said. “We will trade. Let me sit here with these ladies, and you can have my window seat over there. The seat beside it is also free.”

“But we booked two window seats,” I said.

“Of course,” said the Italian. “But these bella donne don’t understand. It would be a shame to distress them, no?”

“I wouldn’t mind distressing them at all,” said Mother.

She was still cross about the kebabs I made her eat in Florence, and very ready to sit down.

“Please, signora,” said the Italian, turning on his native charm. “Let us make this journey a pleasant one.”

Mother slung her bag into the overheard compartment and flopped onto the man’s proffered seat, saying, “Oh, to hell with it.”

Mille grazie,” said the Italian, smiling at the Russians. 

We sat facing a middle-aged couple. The woman was blonde and semi-stout, and her husband was tan with salt-and-pepper hair. He put down his magazine and said, “That guy’s a real joker. He was sitting in my wife’s seat when we got here. Said he had to be next to the window or he’d get sick.”

“He’s on the aisle now,” I said.

“And loving it,” said the woman. 

“You’re American,” said Mother.

“So are you,” said the woman.

“Where from?”

“Philadelphia.”

Mother and I burst out laughing. I explained that our neighbor in Rome was also from Philadelphia, and that we were from Erie.

“No kidding,” said the man, happily.

Before Mother could remark on how small the world was, I got the conversation rolling: “What’s going on in Pennsylvania? We’ve been away a long time.”

They updated us on Penn State’s football record and reported the outcomes of several elections. We rolled through the Veneto talking about TV and sports and movies. Travel is said to inspire tolerance and dispel prejudice, and it’s true. People from Philadelphia were beginning to seem more human every day. Of course, if we’d wanted to bond with Philadelphians we could’ve stayed in Pennsylvania and saved a lot of money. We were supposed to be getting to know Italians. Sadly, the only one within chatting distance was our friend, the seat-swapping, second-class Casanova. He was currently involved in a palm-reading gambit with the Russian ladies, who’d miraculously recovered their ability to speak English.

“Look at this love-line,” said the Italian, fondling a beefy Slavic hand. “You must be some real hot stuff.”

Apparently he’d learned his English pick-up lines from old episodes of CHiPs. Somewhere around Padua, he got up and went to the bar. The ladies rolled their eyes at each other. He made a theatrical return, with three cocktails in hand, and announced: “Moscow Mules, to heat up my little arctic foxes!”

When the train arrived at Santa Lucia Station everyone sprang up and grabbed their bags. We made our adieux to the Philadelphians, went straight to the Grand Canal, and boarded a Venetian waterbus, or vaporetto. The boat was wide and ugly—a noisy, metal people-barge. It filled up with passengers and we shoved off.

Vessels of every description, transporting all kinds of cargo, ply the waters of the Grand Canal. We saw sturdy, blue-hulled skiffs laden with furniture, pallets, aluminum cans and seaweed. Glossy speedboats whizzed by carrying elegant young women, their silky scarves undulating in the wind.

I leaned over the rail and snapped pictures of the palazzi: the Pisani Moretta with its Gothic windows, the Salviati’s flashy glass mosaics. 

“I must be dreaming,” said Mother, as a gondola skimmed by. 

We got off at the Ca d’Oro (“Golden House”), and took a narrow alley to the Strada Nuova. This shop-lined road runs through the heart of Cannaregio, Venice’s least touristed neighborhood. Our hotel was located somewhere in the maze of baroque lanes that twist behind its storefronts. To help us get there, I’d printed a Google map. After three turns, we found ourselves at the edge of a small green canal with laundry strung over it. 

“I see a bridge down there,” said Mother.

“We can’t get there from here. We’ll have to go back a block and take a right.”

“And then another right.”

“Right.”

We performed these maneuvers, and arrived at an entirely different canal. We followed it for about a block until the path ended. 

“This way,” I said, re-entering the labyrinth of laneways.

Dusk had descended rapidly, bringing with it a clammy chill. There were no people around, and few lights. Our footsteps echoed eerily off the dank walls. When we hit a dead end, I turned the map upside down and reevaluated it. “This is useless. We’ll have to rely on our instincts.”

“Do we have any?” said Mother.

We moved quickly through the darkened streets back to the Strada Nuova, where she wanted to ask for directions. I refused. Asking directions is the mark of a worthless and defeated traveler. I took us down another road, which led to a humpbacked bridge with wrought iron railings. A man passed us as we were crossing, and Mother accosted him: “Excuse me, do you know where—”

He moved brusquely around her.

“Serves you right,” I said.

“Why? What’s wrong with asking for help?”

“Imagine if you were a Venetian,” I said. “Your family has lived here for centuries, dating back to a time when Venice was the most powerful trading nation in Europe—the Queen of the Adriatic. Your ancestors were rich and influential, doges possibly. Now, your once magnificent city has been reduced to a waterlogged tourist attraction. Thousands upon thousands of foreigners pass through every day, and each one wants you to give him directions—directions to hotels, directions to restaurants, directions to churches, museums, or statues. They ask in English, in German, in Japanese. Would you stop?”

Another man came over the bridge. Mother approached him, and asked where we might find our hotel. He gave her precise instructions in English and departed with a friendly “Benvenuti a Venezia!

Mother led the way, grinning profusely.

“Oh, shut up,” I said.

The hotel was only distinguishable from the tightly packed buildings that bordered it by a tiny, illuminated sign. I tried the door, but found it locked. This was not entirely unexpected, as the hotel was closed for the season, and we weren’t actually staying there. The owner had booked us into something he called “the annex” instead, and instructed us to check in at the hotel before seven o’clock. It was now the wrong side of seven o’ clock.

I knocked, and there was no response. I knocked again. Finally, a harried-looking girl opened the door and said, “Che cosa?

“Checking in,” I said.

“Oh, yes. The annex people. You’re late.”

She gave me some paperwork to complete at the desk. When I finished, she whipped a keychain off the wall and said, “Follow.” We tried to keep up, but the girl was under twenty-five and fast. I’d seen Jamaican sprinters get off to slower starts. She took us down a long, gloomy road.

“Where are we going?” said Mother, stumbling over the uneven pavement. “Isn’t an annex supposed to be attached to the building?” 

“I don’t know,” I said. “But if we want to find our way back, you’d better start dropping breadcrumbs. 

When we caught up to the girl she was standing beside a nondescript entrance with a key at the ready. She held it up for us to see, and inserted it into the lock. “Door number one,” she said. We went inside, trailed her up a flight of steep stairs, lost her at the landing, and found her again at the top of a second flight. “Door number two,” she said, leading us into a chamber with a shiny checkered floor. In the corner there was yet another portal.

“Door number three?” I said.

“Correct,” she said.

A short corridor came next, followed by door number four. The girl opened it and we entered a room that was glorious, almost American, in its proportions. She showed us around: one big antique bed. One small antique bed. TV. Toilet. Shower.

She held up the keychain and took us through the keys once more, in order: “One, two, three, four. Got it? Good. Have a nice stay.” The breeze generated by her exit nearly blew a painting off the wall.

“Well,” said Mother. “They certainly don’t coddle you around here.” 

I collapsed on the big bed. Mother went into the bathroom and flushed the toilet. After it filled, she turned on the faucet and the shower. “Everything works,” she said. “And there’s hot water if you want a bath.”

Scummy and degraded as I was, I didn’t consider cleaning up a priority. The totality of my lunchtime nourishment had been derived from a malformed clump of chocolate, caramel and hazelnuts purchased at a sundries counter on the railroad platform. 

“Let’s go eat,” I said.

Mother sat on the small bed, unpacking her bag, and expressed a perfectly reasonable reluctance to leave. “We’ll never find our way back in the dark.”

“We’ll never find our way back in the light, either. But we can’t just stay up here in the annex like Anne Frank. We have to go out and see things. We have to do things. Italian things. And we have to eat. Now.”

Four doors later, we were back in the forsaken street, making our way toward the Strada Nuova and paying close attention to identifying architectural features. “Remember that door with the Byzantine lintel,” I said. “We have to turn left at the Byzantine lintel.”

“What the heck is a Byzantine lintel?” said Mother.

“And the lancet arch over there. Memorize it.”

“Everything has arches!”

After a couple wrong turns, we arrived at the Ca d’Oro vaporetto stop. As we pulled away from the dock, a penumbra of apprehension darkened Mother’s brow. She peered intently at the façade of the Ca d’Oro, trying to count the windows.

“Relax,” I said. “You can’t miss the Ca d’Oro. Besides, the stop is called Ca d’Oro. Just get off when the man yells ‘Ca d’Oro.’”

“What if the man doesn’t yell ‘Ca d’Oro’?” 

“He will. It’s his job.”

We debarked at the Piazza San Marco and joined a small crowd in front of St. Mark’s. The basilica’s oriental domes and arches were ablaze with golden light. It wasn’t open, but people were still drawn, moth-like, to its brilliance. The famous pigeons were there too (dozens on the ground, hundreds roosting above), strutting and cooing abrasively. 

We went into a restaurant and ate a foolish amount of seafood: linguine with mussels and whelk and octopus, calamari atop a sloppy puddle of polenta. After dinner, we exited the piazza between the two big columns that represent the gateway to Venice. There is a winged lion, symbol of St. Mark, current patron of Venice, atop one, and a statue of St. Theodore, the city’s original patron, on the other. With their saintly finials, the columns might be construed as serving some religious purpose, but this is not the case. Mark’s lion is fierce, and Theodore wields a deadly spear. Many gory executions took place at the foot of these columns, and Venetians consider it bad luck to pass between them.

It proved to be just the opposite for us. After disembarking the vaporetto at Ca d’Oro we managed, through what can only be described as supernatural intervention, to return to the annex without a single misstep. I even got all four keys right on the first try. Grazie, St. Theodore.

SECOND LIFE

Shellie Richards

Who checks for lumps before age fifty? I was only seventeen when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. My breasts more closely resembled moon pies than actual boobs. The round hockey-puck-like protrusions had grown a mass, and I never even noticed. It spread to the lymph nodes and then it was everywhere. After months of chemo and radiation, I was bald but in remission. About the time my eyebrows decided to grow in (right after I got good at drawing them on), I got run over by a UPS truck. I was pulling a box turtle from the road in early June and then everything went brown—then black. Damn UPS truck. I didn’t die instantly, though. I lingered while my parents and sister held a bedside vigil of hope. Every day after her shift, the UPS driver came by to see how I was. Had I opened my eyes? Had I squeezed anyone’s hand? Had I wiggled my toes? Each day was more waiting, more hoping that I’d suddenly come to life and ask for some nachos, a Pepsi, and my cell phone. Then, on day ten, I flatlined. 

What a relief that was! The constant sobbing and reminiscing and profuse apologies from the driver depressed me, and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it but lie in the bed and listen. And I heard it all. I heard my sister on her cell phone with her boyfriend—not her husband, her boyfriend. Who knew? I heard my dad squeal like a little girl when he landed tickets to the Masters golf tournament and then listened to him practice his speech (the one he’d give to my mother) over and over. He cleared his throat and tried various tones of “disappointed yet excited” and “somber yet ecstatic” so she’d understand that while it was their silver anniversary, this was the chance of a lifetime (!!!). Maybe she’d like to come too. Then I listened as my mother said yes and later cried on the phone to her best friend about the anniversary party that would never happen. Then there was the whole living will disagreement. My sister and mother wanted me to remain hooked up to the life-sustaining machines, while my father argued I would never have wanted to live like a vegetable.

“But she’s come so far! She fought the cancer and she won! Against all odds!” My mother’s crescendo of defiance filled the ICU.

“Yes, Marion, I know. You say it like I wasn’t there! I just don’t think Rachel would want this! I know she wouldn’t.”

“Oh really, Jack? And how do you know that? Did you ask her, ‘Hey, Rachel, if you were in a coma and hooked up to machines that were keeping you alive, would you care whether we pulled the plug?” My mother’s voice disappeared into muffled sobs.

But none of that mattered. I died anyway.

I was buried in the family tomb in New Orleans in the Lafayette Cemetery, and before I even had time to fully decompose, I came back. And despite common reincarnation folklore, I remembered who I’d been in my previous life. Reincarnation is funny like that. Stranger still, I’m living in the same city on the same street, attending the same school. Some days I go over to the cemetery and pull weeds from around the tomb where my old bones are slowly baking to dust. No one else in the family has passed away, so I’m still on the top shelf of the tomb. Just the other day, I watched a caterpillar on the marble tableau weave in and out of the date on which I’d died—June 11. He walked up the first one and down the second one and over to the first two in 2012. I left him sitting in the center of the zero, where he evidently decided to take a siesta. I walked home, past my old house and my old family with my old mom cutting roses in the front and my old dad working on a new charbroil grill. They smiled and waved and so did I. They’d no idea and I didn’t want to freak them out, but I could have.

“Hey, Mom, remember the day you taught me how to ride a bike without trainers? A storm was coming, but I was so excited because I was sooo close, and so we stayed on the sidewalk in the pouring rain, and later we went out for milkshakes to celebrate? Chocolate mint!” Or “Hey, Dad, remember when I fell off my bed and busted my chin and got stitches on your birthday and then four days later when it was my birthday, you cut yourself and had to get stitches too? And the nurse took our photos, mine with my stitched chin—I got seven and you with your stitched-up hand, you got eleven—and hung them on the bulletin board at the nurses’ station? How funny was that?”

I admit I think about saying something, but they were good parents, and I just can’t bring myself to creep them out. But there is something… My former sister, the one with the husband and the boyfriend, both of whom happened to be named Jerry, now runs a bakery in the Garden District and, well, I applied and got the job. And maybe I cheated a little. I said how I loved gingerbread, and she said, “Me too!” and how my favorite color was yellow, and she said, “Me too!” and then I said my favorite soup was the shrimp bisque at Commander’s Palace, and that was that. I was hired on the spot. But I hate gingerbread. And yellow. And shrimp bisque. I’m a gumbo kinda girl. I was then, and I am now. But I do have real boobs this time, not those old moon pies like before. The apron I wear at La Bon Bakery stretches nicely over them. It’s been years—sixteen to be exact—and Jerry the boyfriend is gone and it’s just Jerry the husband now. Still, on the days we bake cherry pies, I always sing, “Cherry-cherry double Jerry-Jerry,” and watch for any sign that she gets it. She doesn’t. 

She does talk about me from time to time. How great I was, how perfect I was, and how sad she was when I died. She’d go in my room and lie on my pillow and bury her nose and smell. It smelled like Moroccan oil. That’s what I always used on my hair. She listened to my iPod and after that, she said she’d listen to rap music at least one day a week just to remember me. She’s told everyone about how I died pulling a box turtle from the road and how the UPS driver was never able to forgive herself and how she no longer drives. Instead, she works at Fresh Market grocery in their deli. Rides her bike there and back and, every Tuesday, brings my old sister a pound of London broil and a pound of smoked turkey. In exchange, my sister bakes a cake shaped and iced like a box turtle. I can’t imagine that’s consoling, but whatever, right? 

I mean wtf? “Hey, here’s a cake in the form of a box turtle just like the one Rachel was pulling from the road the day you ran her down in the street like a dog…” Too dramatic? Maybe, but I wouldn’t want some sordid reminder and at 750 calories a slice to boot. No thanks. I must admit I found the whole fixation on the turtle rather odd. I mean, it was just a small part of my story. Just a thing I was getting out of the road. Me, the one who had survived breast cancer. At age seventeen, against the odds, only to be run over by a UPS truck. If I’d died at the hands of a drunk driver who’d been drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon, would they toast my memory with PBR? 

My old sister’s not half bad as a boss. She’s fair when I need a night off and she always lets me take home a dozen or so cookies. My favorite, the snickerdoodles, are especially good. I’ve never had a better cookie anywhere. They are crisp on the outside with a soft center and the perfect amount of spices. Last week, a guy drove three hours from Mississippi just for the snickerdoodles. He bought all we had, and I had to take home oatmeal raisin that night. Bastard. And the regulars, the ones with discerning tastes, and the local foodies all come for the snickerdoodles. I’ve no idea what is in them, but I imagine it’s a lot like crack cocaine. Try them once and you’re hooked. 

At the bakery, I don’t actually mix them—that is to say, I don’t know the recipe. I just plop them out in tablespoon-sized dollops for baking. But I imagine baking them at home until my tiny apartment has permanently captured the aroma, storing it in my curtains and walls, and each day when I come home, that incredible smell greets me like an old friendly dog. I figure there must be some secret ingredient that makes them so delicious; I suspect it’s something odd, like a dash of black pepper or walnut oil or some exotic ingredient she has imported. I’ve asked but she always pantomimes the zippered, buttoned-up lip and smiles. Only she knows the recipes for everything she bakes, and she guards them like the NSA guards classified documents. 

I guess if I ran a bakery with cookies that good, I’d guard them too. But I was her sister. Even now, I’m [still] practically family, right? I was family and the only thing that has kept me from having that recipe as far as I’m concerned is that UPS driver! If you were going to share a recipe, wouldn’t you do so with a family member? How much closer can you get than me, former sister, previously Rachel? She keeps her office locked up like a bank vault and she’s good at keeping secrets; we know that already, right? Cherry-cherry double Jerry-Jerry. But I just keep imagining my apartment filling with the smells of baking snickerdoodles, and I wouldn’t mind that red velvet cake or the million-dollar pound cake recipe while I’m at it. Or the pumpkin roll she makes only in October and November.

Here’s my plan (it’s not foolproof, but stay with me). One day while old sister’s busy in the freezer with inventory, I’ll sneak into her office, pick the locks on her cabinets (I’ve researched lock-picking extensively), quickly photograph the recipes with my phone, and be out before she can count three sticks of butter. That’s my plan. Part A. Part B is where things get sketchy. If she catches me digging through her files, I’m going all out with the freak show. I’m going to dredge up every last thing she did when I was Rachel—those things only Rachel would know…like how she accidentally broke Mom’s antique washing bowl that had belonged to her great-great-grandmother circa Civil War era. Or how she burned down the garage and everything in it one time when she was sneaking a cigarette—Dad’s golf clubs (including his lucky driver), Mom’s antique dresser, my childhood books and dolls all nothing but ashes (nothing against ashes—lots of really good stuff ends up ashes). Conveniently, it’d occurred around the Fourth of July, and so “fireworks were the obvious culprit.” Uh huh. I’m with ya, sister. Cherry-cherry double Jerry-Jerry. Marlboro Lights and bottle rockets are hardly the same. Shoplifting. Skipping school. Losing her virginity at fourteen. Underage drinking. I know all of her sins, and if my hand is forced, I’ll have to do it, and it will be greater than any sideshow at any circus. I will try my best to avoid the freak show route. I like my gig here, and old sister is not so bad. In fact, I much prefer her to my brother I have now. But I need that recipe. I need to know what is in those snickerdoodles.

It was indeed a freak show. FREAK SHOW. I waited until she was in the freezer counting eggs and butter, and I went into her office and picked the lock to the cabinet. I went straight to the S’s for snickerdoodles, and without even reading the recipe, I photographed it. Then the million-dollar pound cake, then the red velvet cake, the Italian cream, the fresh coconut, and the pumpkin roll. I lost focus and got greedy, and I would’ve been fine except I noticed cabinet number two. I hadn’t counted on that. With the precision of a seasoned thief, I picked the lock, and that’s when the freak show started. I opened that cabinet to a shrine of sorts. In the center, a single turtle shell and around it, a few candles, some incense, an urn (???), and photos of me everywhere. Well, technically, of Rachel. Photos of me on my bike, me and old Dad with stitches, me at graduation, me on chemo with my drawn-on eyebrows. I examined the turtle shell closely. It had to be the one. Had to be. There were grooves in the shell where it had sailed across the asphalt. I ran my fingertips over the scratches. Without thinking, I shut the cabinet door, turtle shell in hand, and headed toward the front. As I stepped out into the hall, there she stood, old sister. Her mouth dropped and I knew it was coming. The wtf are you doing with my turtle-shell-shrine-shit? But I never gave her the chance. I figured the best I could do was try to get away. So I made a run for it, and the last thing she said was “Butter!” As I turned to look at her, I slipped in a puddle of butter and went down, snapping my neck on the counter as I went. The turtle shell popped out of my arms (once again), and in my peripheral vision, I watched as it skidded across the floor and eventually sputtered to a stop.

I could’ve wasted my final words on “I was Rachel, your sister who beat cancer and died saving a turtle, and I hope the cigarette was worth the garage burning to the ground,” but all I managed before I went was “I love your snickerdoodles. What’s in them?”

THE FAMILY

by

Mitchell W. Baum

Ice cracked under the tires as Mitchell parked at his grandmother’s house. The gray afternoon was fading. Crusted snow in the light of the house clung to laurel leaves, making the bushes sag. Only Mitchell and his sister were left to see the old woman now. Uncle Wally had moved to Florida and paid her bills from there. Mitchell lit a cigarette, delaying going in. He remembered the old house in Waterbury, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. The tick of the tall clock in the front hall had made it seem that the house itself was alive and unchanging. In that house he’d always known what was expected. This house was like a shoebox, all on one floor, practical. His visit was overdue. It seemed incredible he didn’t come more often. 

Mary, the Black cook, let him in and took his coat. He liked her but was uncomfortable with her shyness. For both of them it was as if they mattered only for what they meant to the old woman. Mary was in her fifties. Mitchell wondered how she coped with her loneliness. A nurse came most days, but Mary didn’t drive so she couldn’t leave. He’d seen her, on her Sunday day off, hurry through breakfast, change into a pretty dress, and take a taxi to New London. He thought she must live for those days. 

“How is she, Mary?” 

“She’s pretty good. When she gets tired she doesn’t make much sense, but we don’t bother her with that. She’s been asking all day, ‘What time is it? What time is it? When’s he going to get here?’” 

She led him into the living room, where his grandmother sat peering at the fire. She had a round, pretty face and a cumulus of white hair. The big, winged chair dwarfed her like a child. She didn’t notice them come in. They stopped, not wanting to pierce the quiet. A spark sounded in the fireplace. 

“Look who’s here, Mrs. Wallace!” 

It took a moment for recognition, but then her arms shot out. She grabbed his hands, shook them, and laughed. She kissed him, then pushed him back. She held him by the lapels of his jacket. She seemed to soak him in. 

“Let me look at you!” 

She banged her cane on the floor. 

“Well, Mary, what do you think?” 

“Isn’t he handsome, Mrs. Wallace!” 

He was almost handsome but his extra weight made his face soft and undefined. His big, round eyes seemed perpetually questioning and indecisive. 

Mary brought them some drinks and nuts. 

“Good old Dr. Holiday says I need one of these every day for my heart.” The old woman winked. “What would I do without him?! So tell me, how’s that college of yours? Having a gay time with the girls?” 

“I’m keeping up the tradition,” he lied. 

“Well, that’s good! You should. When I was your age, there wasn’t all this seriousness you have now. We had some fun. There was a gang of us. I went to all the parties. Your grandfather, poor thing, was courting me for a long time, wanting to get married. But I kept putting him off because I was having too good a time.” 

Mitchell relaxed back into his chair. He had heard the story so many times, unchanging word for word, like a favorite song. 

“I wanted to go to the Yale Prom again. You can’t be married and go to a prom! But H. Mitchell had finally had enough. He came to see me one morning at my father’s house on Prospect Street. He got us alone, and he sat me down. ‘Now, Louise,’ he said, and I knew I was in for it.” She winked at Mitchell. “‘Louise,’ he said, ‘I’m taking the afternoon train to New York. Tomorrow I leave on a boat to Africa. I’m going to expand the business there. I plan to be gone five years. If you agree to marry me, I won’t go, but I have to know now.’” 

She laughed. “Well, I could see this was it. I didn’t want him to get away. I just wanted a little more time but he was so determined. So what could I do?!”  

She looked at Mitchell as if she was helpless. Then she laughed and looked into the flames like she was seeing it all again. 

Mary brought trays, which she set on little tables in front of their chairs. Mitchell was sad to realize they didn’t use the dining room anymore. 

Now Mrs. Wallace seemed exhausted. Mitchell realized how much the effort to be gay had taken out of her. She looked listlessly at her food. 

She’d always gotten what she wanted and been happy with it, but she was no longer in charge. When Mitchell was young, if he complained or was scared, she would say, “Oh, bubbles!” It always made him feel better, as if whatever the problem, it was not too big. But now the eyes that had been the happiest of his childhood looked tired and afraid. 

When they were done, Mary came in to take the trays. “Now Mrs. Wallace, you haven’t eaten but a bit of your dinner.”

“I tried to eat, Mary. Don’t make me eat more,” she pleaded, looking up at her.  

“Well, just eat some of those peas you haven’t touched while I take Mr. Mitchell’s tray to the kitchen.” 

Peas fell from her fork as she brought it to her mouth. Mary came back and took the tray. “That’s good enough for now, dear.” 

Mary’s approval reassured her. Mitchell saw his grandmother relax. 

“I don’t see anyone anymore. Where’s all the old gang you used to bring down? We used to play all the old songs, roll up the rug in the living room, and dance. Remember?” 

He didn’t remember. It was almost like panic. He didn’t know which generation she had placed him in. Did she think he was his uncle, or one of his grandfather’s friends? 

“I’m just an old woman now. Everything seems to have changed. I don’t understand what happened. Even H. Mitchell never seems to be here, and he was never like that.” 

She watched her grandson closely, as if he might provide some clue. 

“It makes me wonder…I wonder if there’s something I don’t know about?” 

Mitchell realized that she was asking if his grandfather had another woman. It stunned him. The pain of it. That something as strong as their marriage could be doubted and lost. Anything could be taken away. He was afraid to tell her, but there was no one else. He lit a cigarette. He leaned toward his grandmother, clasping his hands. 

“Granny, I’m your grandson, Mitchell.” He paused. She stared at him.  

“My grandfather, your husband, H. Mitchell, passed away. He died eight years ago.” 

She looked like he had hit her. Her face went slack. Slowly anger reanimated her. 

“Why do you say this when you know it’s not true? Why do you want to hurt me?” 

“Granny, I don’t want to hurt you.” 

He thought, I’ve done the wrong thing. His resolve left. He felt he couldn’t finish it. 

“What I told you is true. Granddaddy passed away.”

She continued to stare at him. He drew on his cigarette, not wanting to look back. He wanted to run outside. His grandmother seemed to be trying to figure out what was wrong with him. 

Finally she said, “I’ll prove it to you.” She picked up the phone and dialed. 

“Operator, I want to speak to H. Mitchell Wallace.” She paused, irritated. 

“Well, I suppose he’d be at the club.

“The Waterbury Club.

“Well, of course in Waterbury, Connecticut.” 

Mitchell marveled at the patience of the operator, that she was able to get the call through. 

“Hello… Yes, I would like to speak to H. Mitchell Wallace… He’s been a member of the club for a great many years… I’m his wife, Mrs. Wallace…

“I see. Yes, I’ll try again later. Thank you very much.” 

She hung up the phone and turned to her grandson. Her eyes were clear and alive with triumph. 

“They said he isn’t there yet.” 

Mitchell felt terribly alone. He imagined the kind, well-intentioned man at the club desk. Perhaps he had worked there when his grandfather was alive. 

Mitchell heard a voice that didn’t seem his own. 

“Maybe you can reach him later.”

Deep Cleaning

Deep Cleaning

Ron Singer

 

The first time you make a mistake, you can usually shrug it off. But, if you make it again, you may be stupid. (Is there a saying to this effect?) I also believe that serious pain can teach enduring lessons. In the course of two recent cleanings, for example, I have become a poster boy (aged 72) for dental hygiene. Not to belabor the obvious, but this means thorough brushing and flossing after every meal, and no shortcuts with what Scott, my dentist, calls “the electric”: two minutes every night, before bedtime. I have also put an end to procrastination over office visits (to his office—I don’t have one, anymore). These days, I’m not especially busy, and since Mary is still toiling away in the vineyards of primary-school education, we continue to enjoy adequate dental insurance. Ergo, I go. No excuses. 

Accordingly, three months after the last, routine cleaning, and the day after receiving Scott’s friendly reminder (by snail, still), I made a new appointment, then showed up at the appointed hour, on the appointed day. As I climbed out of the cab and paid the driver, I dared to anticipate another “shallow” cleaning. 

While I waited in the anteroom for Scott to finish up with another patient, my whole dental life flashed before me (the last two visits, anyway): two voyages around the eight surfaces of the four quadrants of my mouth (each, recto and verso); my thoughts during the first, “deep” cleaning, which had included the sudden death, from a brain aneurysm, of a thirty-something friend, Charles Goldstein, and the funeral and sightings of his unquiet ghost; and, finally, Scott’s having confided in me that his son had been diagnosed with bi-polar disease. To my subsequent self-flagellation, his unspoken plea for sympathy and guidance had gone unanswered. 

By now, all that seemed like old hat: omissions, obsessions, and mistakes, there was no reason to dwell upon them–or repeat them. Charles’ restless ghost was long gone, even from my dreams. And, at the start of the second visit, I had asked about the boy — albeit rather brusquely. Not to be cynical, but the best good deed may be when you are rewarded for the intention. Scott had replied that his son’s illness had turned out to be “blessedly mild.” After a dicey start, they had regulated the lithium dosage, and the young man seemed to be doing better. 

“Thanks for asking, Marty.”

As soon as he ushered me into his office, I asked again. This time, although I couldn’t remember the son’s name, I tried to put a little feeling into the question: “How’s your boy doing these days, Scott?” In response, I received the same information as last time. Even Scott’s words, if I remember correctly, were the same: “…regulated the dosage … managing better.” Did he use those words with every patient? For an instant, the possibility hurt my amour propre. But then I remembered my cold reaction when he first confided in me. By what right could I now expect a personalized response? As you sow…. Besides, it would have been strange if Scott enjoyed this topic of conversation.

The moment before asking the question, I had hesitated for a single beat. I was having a little tussle with the residue of superstition that I suspect lingers even in rational people. When my wife holds her breath as we drive past that mile-long cemetery in western Queens, or when my daughter throws spilled salt over her shoulder, I confess to a feeling of amused superiority. But I don’t believe anyone is completely un-superstitious. 

Speaking of which, although I stopped seeing the ghost of Charles Goldstein long ago, it occurs to me that the sightings may also have been a subtle form of superstition. When someone several decades younger than you drops dead on the street one day, resurrecting them could be a way of shrugging off the actuarial implication that you are living on borrowed time. And don’t give me that crap about how “we all live on borrowed time.” The borrowed time of a thirty-something is nothing like the borrowed time of a seventy-something.  

As I was saying, at the moment of opening my mouth to ask Scott how his son was doing, I was brought up short by superstition. To ask the question might upset the stasis that the boy had apparently reached. But, then, I thought how superstitious it would be not to ask. And I realized something else: if the stasis (like a bad dental crown) had not held, I did not want to know. The fact remained that I still didn’t really want to share Scott’s burden. What an ignoble feeling! What a relapse into the coldness for which I had berated myself after the deep cleaning! So, as I have indicated, I did ask, after all, and Scott replied, also as indicated. After that, he changed the subject.

“Let’s get started, Marty, I’m running a little late today. Open, please.” 

And he launched into his usual expert renewal of my mouth. Scott’s care is personalized. As usual, he had hung my x-rays from a clothespin in front of a magnifying light three feet from the chair, so he could refer to them. After the hygienist had glided in, painted a little of the “local” onto my gums, and glided back out, Scott did a quick survey of the territory, accompanied by a blow-by-blow description. 

“Ve-ry good. That old crown, back bottom left, seems to be holding. We can postpone replacing it until the new insurance year kicks in…. And, let’s see … the temporary filling, third one in, top right…” Scott has an exceptional chair-side manner.  

Twenty minutes and three quadrants later, as we paused for a rinse and a jaw stretch, superstition once again pounded at the portals of my mind. (Whew!) Perhaps it was because, for whatever reason, we had not been saying much. Under the circumstances, of course, my own capacity to initiate conversation had been very limited. (“Ehhhee, aaww ett.”) But what about Scott? Had his excellent wife run off with the postman? Had his other, “normal” son disappointed? 

Not that our silence had been uncomfortable, but it was anomalous because, normally, Scott natters. Come to think of it, I would be surprised if there were many silent dentists. If he is typical (and I’m not forgetting the bi-polar son), it could be that many dentists suffer from incipient melancholy, which, most of the time, they fend off by nattering. But now and then, their motors must run down.

Thus far, the cleaning had been smooth and easy –a little picking, a little scraping, nothing that tested my medium-low pain threshold. So now I almost said, “Seems to be going much better this time, Scott. All those two-minute sessions with the electric must be paying off.” Yes, I may as well admit it: I was feeling a little cocky about my newfound dental fitness. But I kept my proverbial pie hole shut. Why? Again, superstition: I feared the evil eye (or tooth). So I rinsed (very little blood), he reinserted the sucker, and we proceeded without incident to the northwest quadrant (top left, verso). As we glided toward this ultima thule, I filled our still-companionable silence by revisiting images from a favorite film, Master and Commander. 

“Which of us is which?” I wondered. And “do Galapagos tortoises have teeth? If so, do they decay and fall out as the animals approach an age not unlike eternity?” In fact, as I have since determined via a thirty-second visit to the Google Virtual Public Library, no modern tortoise has so much as a single tooth. 

On we sped, coming without incident into port. Toothbrush, floss, and paste were proffered, hands shaken, and that was that. Promising to “keep up the good work,” I danced from the office, mentally clasping my clean bill of dental health. As I sailed across the sidewalk, hoping to catch a cab home, I did not suffer, as I had after the deep cleaning, from any self-flagellating thoughts about insensitivity or stupidity, connected, of course, with ever-encroaching mortality. But I did recall something else, which made me freeze right there on the curb, on this typically warm June day. 

Early in the course of today’s session, an unwelcome image from another film had flashed, like heat lightning, across my mental horizon. (The careful reader –frequent sailor on these strange seas of literary thought– will see an epiphany about to appear on his own horizon. Not even a shot across the bows could make it tack and turn.)

The unwelcome image was of Lawrence Olivier, the Nazi dentist in Marathon Man, torturing poor Dustin Hoffman. Fleetingly, back there in the bottom right recto, it had occurred to me to ask Scott his opinion of this film. The question could possibly have started us on a survey of famous movie dental scenes, like the hilarious one in which biker/dentist Bill Murray tortures Steve Martin. But, once again, I had kept my pie hole –well, not shut, but silent. 

No, I had not asked, “Uhht ooo ink uh Awruhnce Oeeiuheh …?” etc. That question might have been given point by the fact that Scott (like many New York dentists) is, as am I (like many of their patients) a member of what I refer to as “the Jewish perversion” (i.e. persuasion). Not to mention that Hoffman plays the eponymous (Jewish) runner, and that Scott is himself a serious jogger. 

Back out on the sidewalk, on this morning of only moderate humility (boom boom), as I stood at the curb, arm upraised for a cab, I imagined how, had I given rein to curiosity and asked the Olivier question, the conversation might have gone:

Marty (I, me):  You’ve seen Marathon Man, right, Scott?

Scott: Hasn’t everyone seen Marathon Man? 

Marty: Well?

Scott: ‘Well,’ what? (Note: doesn’t want to answer. Drop it!)

Marty: What did you think of the dental scene? 

Scott: What do you think I thought? It was horrible.

Marty: Well, of course, Olivier was playing a Nazi.

Scott: Yeah, I noticed. But he was also playing a dentist. A very bad dentist, one who intentionally inflicts pain. 

So, as my raised arm began to tire, and I realized that this was the hour when the taxi drivers’ shift ends, and that I might have to resort to the hated subway, I decided I had done the right thing, after all. Had this conversation actually taken place, during subsequent procedures of any kind, if Scott happened to inflict any pain on me –unintentional, of course—we would both have awkward flashbacks to the Marathon Man conversation.

Yes, over the (I hope) years to come, during numerous visits (not, I hope, too numerous) to Scott’s office, as I try to preserve my teeth, in order to help sustain a Galapagos-like longevity (if I may be permitted a little latitude), I can schedule my regular appointments, then settle into the familiar chair and enjoy Scott’s wizardry, with the small satisfaction of not having evoked the confused archetype of cruel dentist/Nazi/Jew and hapless patient/victim/also Jew. When one visits a dentist repeatedly over the years, one does not need to bring along needless mental plaque. No, the dentist-patient relationship is sufficiently fraught, without making it worse. Scott, the Dentist, and Marty, the Patient, must and will continue to work together in relative harmony.

Note: “Deep Cleaning” (1) narrates two earlier visits by Marty, a retired advertising copywriter, to Scott, his dentist. “Deep Cleaning” (1) appeared at www.snreview.org › Spring2009

My Yoke is Easy

My Yoke is Easy

James William Gardner

It was just Amos Handy and God standing there together on a lonely two lane road in Mississippi in the dark in the middle of the night.  It was God who first spoke.  He said, “Amos, what in the world are you aiming on doing now?”  There was a soft, breeze like God’s breath.  Amos didn’t answer the Lord right away.  He thought about it a while and of course when it’s just you and the Lord that doesn’t really matter because the Lord hears everything you’re thinking anyway.  He more than likely knows it before you do.

Finally Amos Handy said to the Lord, “I really ain’t sure.   I reckon I’ll just go wherever it is that you lead me.”  He didn’t say it out loud.  He said it with his mind’s voice the way he was accustomed to talk to God.  He felt the breeze again.  God’s voice always seemed to come in through the top of his head.  It was almost warm like a stocking hat feels.  Amos Handy hadn’t eaten since Tuesday afternoon and it was Thursday.  “Lord, I sure could use me something to eat if you could manage it.  My stomach’s empty as a drum.”

He began to walk again.  He could hear the gravels crunch under his feet.  He remembered that piece of scripture when Jesus talked about how the Father takes care of his children.  He couldn’t think of the exact words.  That’s how scripture works sometimes.  Just then he saw headlights coming up behind him and he heard a growl of a diesel engine getting louder and louder.  He turned to face the light.  He wasn’t sure, but it looked like a logging truck.  He stuck out his thumb and smiled his best, friendliest smile at the driver.  The big truck slowed down.  The air breaks hissed and it came to a stop right beside him.

“You need you a ride?” said a deep, raspy voice through the open passenger side window.  Behind the voice Amos Handy heard Charlie Pride singing, Kiss an Angel Good Morning.

“I sure do!” answered Amos Handy still smiling as nice as he could.  The door swung open and the voice said to climb on up.  Amos Handy threw his backpack up into the floorboard and got in.  “Man, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this.”  All he could see was the dark silhouetted profile of a face in the dashboard light.  It had a cigarette stuck in it that wiggled up and down when the silhouette spoke.

“No problem Brother,” it said.  “I’ve done been down and out.  I know what it’s like.  Where you headed?”

“I ain’t really sure.  I’m just walking and seeing where I can get to.”

The silhouette offered Amos Handy a cigarette.  He pulled one from the pack.  Then a hand came over with a light and for an instant he saw the face of the driver.  “Where’re you coming from?”

“I was staying with this woman over near Montgomery until she kicked me out.”

“Women will do that,” said the driver as if it were nothing.  The big diesel started moving again.  The hand that had held the lighter gripped the gearshift knob and started moving through the gears.  “This is a damn lonely old highway,” he said.  “How come you to come this way?”

“”I caught me a ride with this guy and he dropped me off back there a ways,” replied Amos Handy.  The cigarette tasted good.  He hadn’t had one all day.  He held the smoke in for a long time and savored every puff.

“Hell Buddy, you look like you could use a meal.”

“Man, you got that right.”  Then the big hand came over again and it had a twenty in it.  The driver didn’t say a word.  Amos Handy took the money and put it in his shirt pocket.  “Thank you,” he said.

“There’s a little truck stop up here a piece.  A woman named Leona runs it and she makes some damn good biscuits.  You tell her Travis told her to fix you up.”

“Okay,” said Amos Handy.  Then he got quiet.  He was talking to the Lord again.  “Lord, you’re mighty good to me and you know I appreciate it.”  The Lord just smiled.  You know how it is when God does that, just smiles at you.  You can feel that too, just as real as anything.”

After a little while the lights of the little truck stop came into sight.  The driver pulled the old truck up to the fuel pumps and let Amos Handy out.  “Good luck wherever it is you’re headed.  Remember; tell Leona that Travis sent you.”

Amos Handy said he would.  The airbrakes hissed, and the log truck drove off down the road.  Amos Handy reached to check and make sure that the twenty was still in his pocket.  It was.  He slung his pack over his shoulder and walked inside.  It was warm in there.  He could smell coffee and bacon.  Those are two fine smells when they mix together in the air.  He made his way across the little dining room past the tables to the counter and sat down.  That Charlie Pride song was stuck in his head.  He was humming it under his breath.

“Morning!” shouted a woman’s voice.  Amos Handy looked to see.  A face was staring at him through the kitchen window, a big round face with little twinkling eyes like two raisins in a sweet roll.  “You want coffee?” said the face.

“Yes Ma’am,” answered Amos Handy.

“Just a second Honey, it’s about finished brewing.”  He pulled a paper menu out from between the ketchup bottle and the sugar and opened it up.  There they were right on top, biscuits and gravy.  That’s what he wanted.  A minute later the kitchen door swung open and a little fat woman waddled out with a mug in one hand and a coffee pot in the other.  She sat the mug down and filled it.  “You want cream?”

“Yes Ma’am.”

She reached into the pocket of her apron and pulled out a hand full of little half and half creamers and dropped them in a mound on the counter.  “Are you Leona?” asked Amos Handy looking at the two little raisin eyes.

“That’s me,” she said.

“A truck driver named Travis said to say that he sent me.  He said you fixed some extra good biscuits.”

“Travis Sellers?” she asked.

“I don’t know his last name.  He drives a log truck.”

“That him,” she smiled.  “Do you know what you want?”

“Well Ma’am, I tell you the truth I’m awful hungry.  I believe I’ll have me a plate of gravy biscuits.”

“Do you want any eggs or grits or anything with that?”

“No, just biscuits and gravy,” he said.  The woman nodded and headed back to the kitchen.  He watched her as she walked away.  She had on jeans, tight jeans and you could see the little dimples of fat on the back of her thighs through the denim.  He opened the creamers and stirred his coffee.  Then he raised his mug, blew a couple times and took a sip.  It was hot, but it was good.  An old Pepsi-Cola clock on the wall next to a big mounted fish said that it was a quarter to five.  Amos Handy didn’t have a watch.  He’d sold it to a guy he met in jail one night in Montgomery for seven dollars.  It was all the man had, but the watch wasn’t worth any more than that.  He remembered that he’d bought him a pack of Winstons and a can of beanie weenies with the money.  After just a little while they were gone and Amos Handy wished that he had his watch back, but really when you get right down to it, he didn’t need to know what time it was.  It didn’t matter that much. Time and watches were for people with things to do, places to go and people to meet.

He thought about that girl Tammy, the one in Montgomery that had let him stay with her and then kicked him out.  “Get your shit and get the fuck out of my house this minute!” he could hear her shout.  The sound of it ringing in his head pushed out the Charlie Pride song.  Tammy was a raunchy, messed up chick anyway.  She was on something, nervous and twitching all the time and skinny as a rail.  He though about it a lot after he left and he figured it was probably the best thing that could have happened after all.  Still, he couldn’t understand why she’d turned on him all of a sudden like that.  She’d even said that she loved him.

“Here you go, Baby,” said the little fat, raisin eyed woman as she sat the plate of biscuits and gravy down in front of him.

“Lord!” he said.  “That’s the prettiest, biggest plate of biscuits I’ve ever seen!”

“Any friend of Travis Sellers is a friend of mine.”  She laughed.  “You enjoy that, Honey.  It’s on the house.”  Then she turned and waddled away.  He looked at the biscuits.  There are very few things as pretty as good soft biscuits and sausage gravy with plenty of meat in it.  It was steaming.

“Thank you Lord,” he whispered under his breath.

“Certainly, Amos,” answered the Lord.  “I hope you enjoy it.”  That’s the way the Lord works sometimes at least on easy things, at least for Amos Handy.  He picked up his fork and took a bite. It was as good as he’d ever tasted.   As he was eating a guy walked in and sat right down beside him.  He was a heavyset guy with a black leather cowboy hat perched back on the head and a leather vest with tassels.  He looked over at Amos Handy.  First he looked at his face.  Then, he glanced down and eyed his backpack on the floor.  For a second he looked judgmental, like he was going to say something mean, but then he brightened up and the guy smiled.  He was missing two bottom teeth right in the middle.

“How’re you, Buddy?” he said.

“I’m doing right good,” answered Amos Handy.

“Them’s some damn pretty biscuits,” he said.

“They are.  You ought to get you some.”

The guy hollered out, “Leona!  Get me a cup of Joe and a big plate of biscuits and gravy!”  The woman with the eyes looked out from the kitchen.

“Billy Ray, where in the devil have you been?  I ain’t seen you in over a week.”

“I been down in Hattiesburg.  We’re putting up a warehouse down there.  It’s a big job, thirty-two-hundred square feet.”

The woman pushed the kitchen door open with her knee and came out.  She poured the man’s coffee.  “I seen Shelly the other day.  She was asking about you.”

“We ain’t seeing each other no more,” he said.  “Not since Friday before last. I’m done with her this time for good.”

“Hell, I’m sorry to hear that.  What happened?”

“Aw, I don’t feel like talking about it.  I’ve done pushed it out of my mind.”

The woman didn’t say anything for a minute.  The man just looked at her over his coffee cup.  Amos Handy stared at his plate and ate.

Then the woman said, “Well…” and let it just trail off.  Then she walked back in the kitchen.

The guy in the hat turned to Amos Handy.  “You know something, Buddy?  You can’t trust a woman, not no woman.  They’ll do you wrong as soon as your back is turned.”

Amos Handy thought about that Tammy in Montgomery again.  Then he said one of those stupid, predictable things you say when you don’t know what else to say.  “You can’t live with them and you can’t live without them.”

“You got that right,” said the guy.  The woman, Leona came back out with the guy’s order and sat it down.  Amos Handy ate slow.  He was making it last, enjoying every bite as much as he could.  After a while the woman brought more coffee.  She filled their cups without even asking.  Finally, Amos Handy got down to his last bite.  He looked at it.  Then he stabbed it with his fork, mopped up the last of the gravy and popped it into his mouth.  Sometimes the last bite is the best of all.  Other times you can barely taste it.  He had one more cup of coffee, then thanked the woman and stood up from the counter.

“You on the road?” asked the guy in the hat.

“Yeah,” said Amos Handy as he slung his pack over his shoulder.

“Want a lift?  I’m headed back down to Hattiesburg if you’re going that way.”

Amos Handy looked at the Lord.  He wondered if that’s where the Lord wanted him to go.  He’d never been to Hattiesburg.  Maybe something good was waiting there.  He glanced over at the Pepsi-Cola clock next to the fish.  It was almost six.  “Okay,” he said to the man.”

“Leona Honey, let me have one more cup of coffee to go.”

The woman got it.  The man paid and then they walked out.  It was just starting to get light.  Amos Handy saw an old man coming through the parking lot.  The old guy was pushing a baby stroller.  When he got close Amos Handy noticed that inside the stroller the man had a twenty-four pack of Blue Ribbon Beer.  The guy never looked.  He just walked on by.  “Wonder what the hell that old dude’s doing with that beer at this time of morning,” said the man in the hat.  Amos Handy didn’t answer.  The man pulled out a pack of smokes and offered him one.  Then, they just stood there and watched it grow light.  The breeze of the Lord blew softly across Amos Handy’s face.  Over on the other side of the parking lot next to a puddle of water, he saw a duck sitting there.  It was just as still.  It didn’t move a bit.

They finished their cigarettes.  The guy flicked his butt high over into the bushes.  Amos Handy flicked his.  Then they stepped down off the curb and walked out into the parking lot.  Amos Handy kept looking at the duck, waiting for the thing to move, but it didn’t.  Then he squinted.  It wasn’t a duck at all. It was a damn plastic grocery bag.  It sure looked like a duck.  A lot of times it’s hard to say what’s real.  Then sometimes, it doesn’t matter anyway.  He climbed up into the cab of the truck with the guy in the hat and they headed off for Hattiesburg.

The Letters Keep Coming

The Letters Keep Coming

Holly Day

 

cringe. draw away from me out 

of me slough away

promises burn holes

in dreams I know 

you, silent in the darkened hall, white armor 

stripped and revealed to be paste. tell me why 

I need you. don’t leave me yet. run. pull 

yourself off of me out of me get

as far as you can from 

me, I exile you because 

I know. once a week 

she calls me to let me know you’re still 

sleeping with her, tells me about 

the life you have planned 

for the two of you. she wants forgiveness. 

she wants to know if I’m okay with all 

of this. 

I tell her I’m fine

Procedures for Treatment

Procedures for Treatment

Sandra Florence

Zoe drove through the morning thunderstorm that had quickly filled gutters and many intersections making them impassable. She took a back route through the ever-expanding medical complex to the parking garage. As she turned the corner a flock of oblivious pedestrians, some with umbrellas, others with newspapers held over their heads, lurched into the street right in front of her.

“Look out!” Miranda yelled grabbing Zoe’s arm.

She braked, spraying water in three directions before the engine died. Fuck, that’s all she needed…to run over some idiot today.

“Sorry.” She said looking over at Miranda, trying to calm down. Rain had a strange effect on desert dwellers.  Zoe waited while packs of medical, nursing, and pharmacy students took the opportunity to wade across the flooded street. She switched on the ignition and the Rav sputtered to life.

In spite of the downpour, they arrived early for Miranda’s treatment planning session. They watched the RA’s and the docs arriving, and played a game, matching the actual life-size doctor with the small photo on the wall.  

“There’s Dr. O’Herlihey,” Miranda whispered pointing to a black and white photo. A cheerful-looking woman with a stylish bob smiled at them from the wall. “She was Mimi’s oncologist.” Miranda was referring to a friend of hers who was in the last stages of liver cancer. Zoe noticed how vulnerable Miranda looked. Her beautiful blue eyes were wide, almost teary.  She reached over and put her arm around Miranda hoping she wouldn’t mind since she did not like public displays of affection.

    After sitting in the waiting room for at least forty-five minutes, they were escorted to an exam room.  Zoe stared at the wall. Hospitals were always cold and she was beginning to feel numb. Miranda read a flyer about a support group for the brain injured.  She  looked up. “I wonder if I’ll have to take time off from work during treatment?”

“Well, that’s something you can ask the doctor. I don’t think it’s a given, but…you should if you need to. I certainly would.”  

    Zoe listened carefully to the steps in the hallway. She thought she could distinguish between the footsteps of a nurse, an assistant, or doctor by the pace, sound on the floor, and the pause at the door. She hadn’t heard any footsteps, however, when Dr. Corelli’s RA, Kiko Tinaba slipped into the room in her white coat, trousers and what appeared to be satin Chinese slippers. They turned out to be Sketchers but still, they were a nice touch. Dr. Tinaba couldn’t have been more than twenty-four.  Her head was shaved, a tiny silver Buddha dangled from her neck, and her eyes sparkled behind trendy wire-rims.  She shook hands with Miranda and Zoe, sensitive to the fact that they were a couple. 

      “Ms. James, I just have a few questions to ask you before you see Dr. Corelli.”

      “I will get to see him today won’t I?” Miranda expressed the same concern Zoe had. Would they indeed see the real Corelli, the doctor who had completed his residency under the doctor who had created the procedure.

      “Of course, he’s just finishing with another patient.”  As Dr.Tinaba spoke, Miranda hung on each word, but Zoe became mesmerized by the voice. There was a clean clear …no…fresh cool…. tone. She couldn’t quite figure it out.  Maybe it was the precision of the voice that entranced. As Dr. Tinaba asked Miranda questions, Zoe got up to get a drink. She felt fidgety as she paced. She had just turned around in the room when Dr. Corelli hurried in and said, “Ms. James, I’m sorry to keep you waiting. He reached for her hand and she side-stepped him and said “no, it’s not me. There she is. Miranda turned and smiled, he laughed, the RA chuckled. 

     “You looked so nervous I thought you must be the patient.” They all chuckled again.

     “Well Ms. James. This is a good decision you are making.”

     “Do you think so?” Miranda seemed hesitant.

     “Oh yes! The Cyber Knife,” Corelli explained, “is state of the art non-invasive surgery. There are only 50 of these machines in the country. You are in very elite hands.” 

      “Isn’t it dangerous?” Zoe asked not because she didn’t understand the risks one took with any medical procedure. It was more that she was dumbfounded by the virtual aspect of it, the thought of Dr. Corelli manipulating the cyber knife in cyber space, and shooting pencil beams through Miranda’s head.

Dr. Corelli smiled at Zoe. “Oh, no. We don’t do anything dangerous around here.”

There was a sweet, playfulness to Dr. Corelli. Zoe liked him. He made cyber surgery on the brain seem like an afternoon at the opera.  

                                                             ***

After dinner, Zoe watched Miranda head straight to her room and log onto the WebMD site. “I just want a little bit more information than the doctors gave me,” she said closing the door. Part of the problem as Zoe saw it was that Miranda had worked in health services over twenty-five years. She knew nurses and doctors; she knew the ins and outs of hospital procedure; she was aware that mistakes are often made by even the most diligent health professional. And as the old saying went, people in the medical field make the worst patients.  Zoe usually believed what the doctor told her if she liked the doctor. She knew that mistakes could be made, but she chose to leave things alone. And if she couldn’t actually trust in the doctor, she could trust in the good nature of the universe.  Miranda couldn’t.  She simply knew too much.  She always had questions after she had finished her consults even though she made lists of questions. What are the chances of seizure, will I need to take steroids, will my vision be affected. How much hair will I lose?

     The resident had suggested she would have to have six weeks of treatment. That seemed extreme for what was supposedly only a small piece of tumor left after brain surgery two years before, made inaccessible by its location on the sagittal sinus vein.          

     “Well, you see,” Dr. Tinaba said, “we don’t want to zap you with too high a dose. It is better to treat a little at a time so the brain cells that die, don’t die all at once and cause other problems. This way the brain has time to re-absorb the dead cells.”  Even a child could understand this explanation.

     Dr. Corelli had corrected the resident’s calculation, however. We can do this treatment in five days. Only five days. That’s much better thought Zoe squeezing Miranda’s hand for support.  Miranda squeezed back slightly then said, 

    “ But will that be safe? I mean you can do that?” And Zoe thought about all those dead cells lying around in Miranda’s skull if the treatment went too fast.  Dr. Corelli was amused and reassuring. He spoke with his hands, his eyes and a soft Italian accent.  

     “Of course! You see the tumor is about the size of a walnut.” He pulled out 

the x-ray and put it in front of Miranda and Zoe. 

     “We will be able to fractionate the treatments because of the size. It is small, yes, but still you don’t want it in there.” They stared at the dark walnut inside Miranda’s head that was pressing ever-so-lightly on her right lobe.

                                                             ***

Miranda logged off the computer and came into the living room. She had managed to find what she was looking for: 1 in 1,000 patients may have blindness after treatment.

     “I don’t want to be blind,” Miranda said dropping into the chair next to Zoe who was watching Law and Order, the original. It was an episode she had seen at least three times but she was transfixed by the quirky criminal being interrogated by Lenny. 

     “You are not going to be blind,” she said, continuing to watch Lenny do his thing. She reluctantly turned toward Miranda, trying to be more empathetic and patted her leg.  Would that suffice? Would that be enough to hold Miranda until a commercial break?  She had been comfortable in her stony silence, not wanting to talk anymore about “the procedure.” They had talked all day about it. Miranda asked questions Zoe couldn’t answer. And Zoe made assurances. She felt a surge of resentment at spending yet another day, another evening trying to find answers to unanswerable questions.  Then she felt the guilt and took a breath letting herself relax. A commercial came on and she hit mute. She turned to Miranda. 

     “I know you’re scared, but it will be okay.”

     “How do you know that?” Miranda asked in a tone that was almost angry. Zoe felt the despair setting in. Telling Miranda she would be alright wasn’t going to fix her fear. No amount of assurance would.

     “I just know, that’s all.” Zoe persisted. “I just feel it. You have to trust. And besides, it’s benign.”  Zoe did feel optimistic. That wasn’t a lie. She also felt fear herself because her reserves were low.  It had been about two years since the original tumor had been discovered. They were packing for a weekend trip when Miranda began to complain of an excruciating head ache that would not go away. A trip to the ER, a six- hour wait, and a CT scan would reveal the problem. Zoe was reading a book to Miranda called, The Town That Forgot How To Breath, trying to take her mind off the pain in her head when the doctor appeared and said…

      “I am sorry to have to tell you this, but you have a tumor on your brain.”  Zoe dropped the book and burst into tears. Miranda looked up at the doctor. 

     “We will need to do an MRI to get a closer look at what we’re dealing with. We’ll get you prepped for the procedure shortly, but I’ll give you a minute,” he said, visibly disturbed by Zoe’s wailing. He patted Miranda’s shoulder and left.

      “My god! Is this it? Is this the end of my life?” As they held each other and sobbed, doctors, nurses, more sick people passed or were wheeled by them. One young woman who had apparently escaped from the hospital’s psychiatric unit was subdued by police officers and brought back in, strapped down and screaming. They were finally moved into a room and it wasn’t long before the lab tech showed up to take blood and prep Miranda for an IV.

     “Do I really need an IV for this?”

     “It’s just a precaution,” he said. “This way you’re ready to go.” He worked gently, but Miranda’s veins were not cooperating. He tapped and inserted the needle and deftly moved it around under the skin searching, then moved to another spot. 

     “I’m sorry,” he said as one vein after another slipped away from him. Finally he found a vein that could hold the needle and he said, quietly, “Eureka.”  Miranda breathed a sigh of relief and leaned back against the pillow. 

      This procedure, a much more exact and close look at the brain, did reveal that the tumor was benign, on the outside of the meningial tissue and non-life threatening. She would, however, need a craniotomy, and then she would need time to recover.  Their relief was as quick as their distress had been.

      During the recovery time, Zoe, did everything for Miranda, cooked healthy meals, bathed her, helped her dress, called friends and family and reminded them to come by and visit. She trudged to her full time job overwhelmed by the confluence of emotions, and at times her fear of being trapped manifested as anger. There was so much uncertainty. Miranda reported so many symptoms: tiny seizures, a cut in peripheral vision, tremors and internal shakiness, sensitivity to light and noise, ringing in her ears, pain at the back of her head where the flap, a horseshoe- sized incision was located, held together with giant staples. Zoe came home from work early one afternoon and found Miranda standing in front of the bathroom mirror examining the incision.

     “My head hurts,” she said furiously rubbing the back of her head.

     “Of course your head hurts. You just had brain surgery. It wouldn’t make sense if your head didn’t hurt.” In truth Zoe could only imagine what Miranda must be feeling everyday as she sat in the living room beset by the after effects of someone poking around in her brain. These symptoms could possibly indicate a breach in the temporal parietal juncture causing scattered arrhythmic electrical patterns her neurosurgeon had explained.  And so they waited, together and apart, and Zoe had been amazed by her own capacity to deal with the daily demands on her, both physical and emotional. She had managed to keep her own fear at bay and rise to the occasion.  They walked around the block each evening, down the alley past an old adobe being renovated and barking dogs. Miranda leaned on Zoe for support and balance, and when the noise and light became too much, they headed back to the house.  Finally, after months of being vigilant, Miranda 

began to emerge out of the dark cloud that had been engulfing her, the symptoms began to disappear. Zoe was grateful to have her back.

                                                                  ***

     “I shouldn’t go on line and look for answers,” Miranda said, looking down at the floor and shaking her head. Zoe agreed. Every time she did, Miranda found more conflicting pieces of information, more duplicate symptoms, more confusing exceptions to every other piece of research. But she couldn’t help herself. Like a bystander who cannot turn away from a terrible accident, Miranda looked and looked. Except in this circumstance she was no bystander.

                                                                 ***

The first day of treatment Zoe took time off from work and drove Miranda to the medical center.  

     “People in hospital parking lots drive a little crazy,” Miranda warned, as Zoe circled looking for an empty spot. She wondered if Miranda was referring to other drivers or her. She did often become aggressive behind the wheel. 

     “Why is that?”

      “They’re often slightly debilitated from medications, pain, maybe bad news.” Zoe whipped their tiny Rav into an open spot just ahead of a Lincoln Navigator. 

     “There is no fucking way that giant-ass vehicle is going to fit in this space,” she grumbled. The Navigator sped away screeching its tires and narrowly missing an equally large-ass truck barreling up the incline into the lot. They climbed out onto the top level of the parking garage and made their way across the grounds passing people in various stages of decline and recovery, depending on how one looked at it, waiting for Van Trans, Handi-Cars, and  unreliable relatives scheduled to pick them up. Near the entrance to the Cancer Center, two blue signs in front of them read, THIS IS A NON SMOKING CAMPUS, and SMOKING AREA UNDER THE BLUE AWNING - . Zoe looked around for the blue awning and expecting to see a cluster of smokers furtively puffing under it, but she didn’t see either.  They boarded the elevator which took them to the basement, and Radiation Oncology.

Miranda slid her identification card through the machine and was checked in. They found comfortable seats against one wall next to a table piled high with bananas, apples, and fruit juices. Zoe picked up a Cran-Grape for herself, and an Apple for Miranda. Zoe was so thirsty she downed the juice in two gulps. Then she headed for the vending machines and bought a large Snickers bar. She offered a few bites to Miranda, but Miranda was restless and distracted. 

     “I wonder if I should alert the receptionist to the fact that I’m here,” she said looking around for a receptionist to speak to. 

     “I think that’s what the card and machine are for…that is your check-in,” Zoe tried to reassure her as she shoved down the rest of the candy bar crumbling nuts and tiny chocolate pieces on the front of her shirt.

      “I just want to make sure.” Miranda got up and went over to the large circular reception area just as a receptionist came out of the back. 

     “Hi, yes….if you put your card through, you are checked in…..oh! let me look just to make sure.” The clerk typed in some numbers and Miranda’s name appeared on the 

screen. Miranda returned to her seat and Zoe got up to get another fruit juice, suddenly aware of how thirsty she was again.  

       A man in moccasins milled around the waiting room looking for a magazine, coffee,

snacks.  There seemed to be a miscommunication between the radiation tech, the receptionist and a patient. They couldn’t locate her. They kept calling her name,

     “Barbara Jackson, Ms. Barabara Jackson” Zoe knew the woman was in the bathroom and that her husband was in the hallway talking to someone. 

 How come I know where the patient and her husband are but the staff doesn’t, Zoe thought, feeling slightly contemptuous of them.  And another thing, why can’t these people sit still so somebody can find them?  Should I tell the staff where they are?

Is it any of my business?  Within a few minutes, the woman emerged from the bathroom and rejoined her husband just in time as the radiation tech made another sweep of the waiting room and located the wandering couple. Zoe was relieved, and glad she had not interfered.

     She glanced over at Miranda who was still thumbing a copy of the Smithsonian,     

     “Denizen’s of the Deep: New Views of the Weirdest Creatures You’ve Ever Seen.”  

Not today she thought.  She noticed a young woman who was bent over a clipboard filling out forms for her sister who was in the hospital. Zoe had heard enough of a conversation between the rad tech, the doctor and father to understand this.  Miranda looked up from the magazine.

     “That family seems very needy,” she said leaning toward Zoe. 

     “The girl’s sister is in the hospital already.” 

     “Oh!” Miranda said wincing.   

The father of the girls, long-haired, with Indian Pride tattooed on both shoulders, kept pacing, chattering to the nurses and even the man who was cleaning out the giant aquarium.  A short-stocky elderly man was escorted back to the waiting room by a smiling pregnant rad tech. He hung on her arm and kept talking to her. Then he stopped by the reception desk after spotting two doctors. 

     “Hello, hello,” he said, raising both arms at the two men sitting on stools by computers. 

     “Hello, Mr. Archer, how are you today?” One asked and both turned and smiled giving him the full force of their attention. 

     “Fine, great. I guess I don’t have to come back until……tomorrow…oh no….uh! Monday…Monday cuz we’ve got the weekend coming up. And I’m feeling good, good,

but I’ll be back.” The doctors nodded.  He inched closer.……”Now which one are you,” he asked pointing to the younger doctor, “are you Jensen or…….Franklin?” The doctors were both standing now and they towered over Mr. Archer.  

     “Neither, I’m Hanson…..”

     “Edgar, we’ve got to get going now before traffic gets too bad and the kids are hungry,”  his wife intervened, gently pulling him away and reminding him of a pending engagement and the two grandchildren she’d been corralling during his treatment.  

     “Oh yeah! Oh yeah! Just let poppy go potty and we’ll get going.” He disappeared into the long hallway. The oldest child dangled from one of the chairs next to Zoe, and started singing, “poppy’s going potty, poppy’s going potty.”  Zoe smiled at the boy, then turned to Miranda. 

     “Some people need a lot of attention, don’t they.”

     “Did you see the scar? Miranda whispered. “There was a huge scar above the temporal area. It’s probably a loss of inhibition. Maybe a partial temporal lobotomy.” 

     “Do they still do that?”  Zoe asked.

     “Well, sure! Lobotomy just means lobe or removal of a lobe.”

 Zoe was startled by a radiation tech in pink teddy bear scrubs calling Miranda’s name. She came over to shake her hand. 

     “Hi, my name is Mary and I’ll be giving you your treatment today. She beamed at both Zoe and Miranda. Zoe could tell the meds had finally kicked in but they only seemed to have made Miranda more anxious.

     “Can she come with me,” Miranda asked pointing to Zoe. 

     “Oh sure, for the first part of it, while we get you set up.” The three of them made their way back to a large room. Another tech helped Miranda up on the table and brought the mask over. It was white with ½ inch square holes all over it, a combination fencing mask and medieval face plate. 

     “My lips are so dry.”  

     “Here’s some water,” Zoe brought over the bottle of Dasani and Miranda sat up to drink.  

     “Do you want some music?” one of the techs asked.  “Let’s see….we’ve got Oldies, some kind of piano singer, and classical.”  

     “Oldies, that’ll be good.” Soon a tune from the late 50’s came on, Goodnight My Love.

Zoe leaned against the wall and imagined drive-ins, cruising main in long-low, chrome encrusted cars. A night sky filled with stars. Yes, it was comforting. The techs began fitting Miranda into the mask.

     “It’s tight back here where the screws are,” she pointed to the back of her head. One tech tied a rubber band around her feet to make sure she was even, then began manipulating the mask again. Miranda put her hand up, “wait, I’m sorry,” she said. The technician removed the mask and Miranda sat up to cough. She looked over at Zoe. Zoe smiled and gave her a thumbs up.  Miranda swallowed hard, took a deep breath then lay back down. The mask went on again. 

     “Lift your chin, okay, how’s that?”

     “Uh, okay. It’s very tight back here.”

     “There’s not much we can do about that. Can you handle it for about 15 minutes?”

     “Yeah, okay. Will you keep talking to me and telling me what you’re doing?”

     “Sure, we can do that.”

There were green beams of light knifing across the room above the exam table where Miranda lay. 

     “Okay we’re going to do the first x-ray now,” Mary said, and the other tech turned rapidly toward Zoe and shooed her from the room. She walked back to the waiting room thinking of gamma rays, something about marigolds and gamma rays, and moonlight.

                                                           ***

She could see the Indian father standing by the reception desk as she approached the waiting area.  His desperation and uncertainty about his daughter’s fate were palpable. His other daughter had put down the clipboard and wrapped herself up in a red blanket. Zoe felt the cold but didn’t want to talk to the father even though that might have been the compassionate thing to do.  She walked by him avoiding eye contact. She found 

another seat against the wall and picked up a copy of House Beautiful flipping absentmindedly through its pages. Poppy and grandchildren were no where in sight but a father and his athletic-looking teen-age son had taken their place. The boy looked completely healthy and normal except for his shiny bald head. The elevator bell made a loud ding, and a mother wheeled her young daughter into the waiting room. The girl wore a leg brace with an American flag sock over it.  Zoe’s heart shuddered for a split second. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath letting in the pain. Outside, above them, the season began to shift from summer to an almost imperceptible autumn.

                                                              ***

MRI image from Wikimedia Commons, by Dr O. O’Neil

Election, 2019

Election, 2019

James Croal Jackson

 

Another rainy voting day– this time,

I crossed Main Street without looking.

I know traffic patterns enough

to know around noon there’s no one

 

out here, and so I walked into

the alley by Tina’s, the anti-social

route past people’s fenced backyards.

I met a hanging skeleton and

 

a wooden turkey two houses apart,

and when I walked downhill to

get to Woolsair a man in a Tahoe

pointed to the school’s side door.

 

In other years, there are people

lurking who want to tell me how

to vote, but this time, no signs,

nothing– just an empty gym, three

 

old men and my neighbor, Nolan,

who I didn’t know volunteered

here, told me there have been

just a few today, and thus as I

 

tapped my choices saying no

to oligarchical, corporate forces

as best I could, I temporarily

felt the weight of my fingers

 

multiply, that my choices would

count as thousandths not

millionths on the grand tv ticker

tonight– no. I know enough

 

to know that if it’s only me,

my vote will never matter.